On July 12 of this year, I will celebrate 30 years as a professional mediator – a role that has come to include so much more: training, coaching, facilitation, and organizational health consulting. When I was offered a job at a mediation center three decades ago, I told myself I would stay for two years before heading back to university. Those two years obviously became a lot more! I did go back to university but always part-time with an occasional intensive semester here or there. Once I began my professional career I was hooked, and the rest, as they say, is history.
When people ask me how I got into this profession my response is always the same: “I did not choose this profession; the profession chose me.” I had only vaguely heard of mediation before being tapped on the shoulder to apply for a job at a mediation center in Winnipeg, Manitoba. But it was not the tap on the shoulder that leads me to say that the profession chose me. It is that once I began in the role, the profession seemed to not let me go, as much as I sometimes wanted to step in different directions. Over time, the profession began to form me and mould me. I am who I am today, in part, because of this profession. This is especially true because I was only 23 when I stepped into this role – young enough to be formed and old enough to be self-reflective regarding what was happening to me.
Recently, a colleague asked me how this work has formed me. Upon reflection, my response to her question is as follows:
1. Humility: I would have loved to have been a miracle worker – someone who could arrive and by whose very presence things resolve themselves. This is, sadly, not how change works. In medicine, the patient must participate in their own healing. The same is true in conflict. In mediation, coaching, and even training, the participants are the stars of the show. The mediator only midwifes the conversation. Indeed, the more mediators cajole, push, or persuade participants, the more the possibility of a lasting resolution becomes a receding horizon. Furthermore, while we as intervenors sometimes experience wonderful success stories, more commonly success is measured in small steps and not in massive leaps.
I remember clearly how these two insights dawned on me early in my career. It was as if humility had personified itself and now stood in front of me, speaking to me. Humility has had a grip on me ever since, reminding me to release all ego attachments related to outcomes and big wins. While skills matter (a lot), big wins will come when they come. The word for this in German is “Gelassenheit” – a type of humble letting go of one’s ego attachments mixed with a mindful attention to the present.
2. Mindfulness: To mediate, coach, facilitate, and consult requires a depth of presence that is unequal to almost anything else I do. All else falls away and the only reality that matters is that of the person or people in front of me. When I began exploring the concept of mindfulness a few years into my career, it slowly dawned on me that I already had experienced mindfulness – at least in this one area of my life: My profession has and continues to teach me what it means to be present. My ego attachments fall away when I listen at a deeper level, with what St. Benedict refers to as the “ear of one’s heart.” When this occurs, unanticipated questions emerge – ones that I did not know wanted to be asked. An inner quietness attends the conversation. Being radically present to another person can be both exhausting and exhilarating: exhausting because a deep level of presence requires great concentration; exhilarating because the practice of presence is the gateway to the sacred ground that is the other’s person’s story. Thich Nhat Hahn famously said: “When you do dishes, do dishes.” By extension, one could say: “When you mediate, mediate. When you coach, coach.” In these moments, nothing else matters than the person(s) in front of me.
3. Inner transformation: As I write this article, I am flying home from Switzerland where I spent seven days teaching mediation and coaching skills workshops. Teaching these foundational skills reminds me again and again of the quote by William O’Brien: “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor.” While other factors naturally also contribute to the success of an intervention, our interior condition matters – a lot. As intervenors, we are not perfect: we stumble, we fall into judgement, and we make mistakes. Nonetheless, I am convinced that we cannot work effectively as intervenors (mediators, coaches, trainers) if we are not attentive to our own inner material and the ways we are being invited to be transformed. Early in my career, a colleague said to me: “You can’t take people where they need to go, if you have not been there yourself.” Said otherwise, when we open ourselves to our own transformation, we come into the mediation/coaching/training space with a spirit that opens the door to multiple other transformations – including the interpersonal conflicts and organizational systems with whom we are engaged.
4. Unconditional Positive Regard: It is possible that no three words have influenced me as much as these three, coined by the famed American psychologist Carl Rogers. Rogers offered (and I am paraphrasing here) that if he regarded people with judgement, they responded with resistance. When Rogers offered unconditional positive regard, change was possible. These three words, unconditional positive regard, have landed deeply in my being, calling me again and again into a deep and abiding love for the people with whom I work and the people I encounter over the course of my days. Unconditional positive regard does not mean we have no boundaries. What is does mean is that we hold boundaries with a spirit of deep honour for the other rather than a spirit of othering and disregard. Unconditional positive regard is something we are also invited to offer ourselves. Said most simply: When acceptance happens, change is possible.
5. Joy is Possible: When I wrote the book, The Space Between Us, I considered titling the book, Joy is Possible. Why this title? Why these three words? Whether we are deep in conflict, navigating polarized conversations, negotiating culture change, or struggling with organizational direction, a weariness can come over us that causes us to lose sight of the possibility of joy. Joy does not mean ignoring the challenges in front of us. Joy means noticing moments of wonder that are waiting to be seen in addition to the challenges. It involves leaning into hard conversations with courage and hope. Joy means practicing gratitude for the privilege of being part of the conversation.
I will close with just one more way in which my profession has formed me. This vocation has given me the privilege of interacting with a wide range of clients, colleagues, and workshop participants. I have worked with doctors, nurses, university professors, garbage collectors, airplane builders, counselors, clergy, business owners, administrative leaders, secretaries, teachers, lawyers, municipal employees, librarians, volunteers, construction workers, mechanics, farmers, musicians, and more. The list of professionals I have accompanied is beautifully diverse. Even more interesting is the diversity of personalities I have encountered. I am grateful for each client, each workshop participant, and each colleague. In so many ways, I have been the student. The people with whom I have worked – these have been my teachers. To each, I offer a deep bow of gratitude.