by Rita Bailey

Dealing with obstacles

During the course of the meeting, obstacles are likely to crop up. As mediator, it is your role to remain calm, positive and impartial.

Handling the emotions and sensitive dialogue

During the mediation session, many feelings will typically arise, including frustration, fear, outrage and resentment. Airing these feelings is part of the mediation process, as unresolved unexpressed feelings about the dispute act as an obstacle. So accusations, silence and angry outbursts can be part and parcel of the process and should be no surprise.

The important matter is that the mediator should be able take this show of emotions in their stride, working with the feelings so these do not derail the session.

Each individual will express what they need so it is important to gather information from both sides to understand what each individual will agree to work with. Ask good questions, keeping your language simple, positive and impartial. Listen carefully to each person’s interest and what is important to them.

Assist each person by clarifying, reframing and summarising what is said to defuse any tension and help with the process of understanding. Make notes on the issues raised, and any solutions that are suggested.

Wait until you have a good understanding of the issues before you move to making agreements. Despite the tension or polarised views, don’t allow this to upset or unsettle you in your role as mediator. A premature and eager move to a solution may allow real issues to lie unresolved, waiting to re-emerge later.

  • Present the problems as shared concerns.
  • Remind parties of turning points and agreements.
  • Acknowledge and affirm the feelings that are expressed.
  • Check to see what people think they heard.
  • Ensure everyone gets fair share of air time.
  • If things get too draining or become stuck, suggest a break.
Useful phrases
  • What would you say has contributed to this?
  • So talk us through what happened...
  • Could you give us an example of...?
  • So, in your eyes, X was unhelpful?
  • Did you know what to expect...?
  • You mention X should be different… How would you like X to be different?
  • You mentioned professionalism; what do you mean by that?

How to remain impartial

Impartiality is a key aspect of mediation. Mediation will not work without this being demonstrated clearly. There are three aspects to keep in mind:

  • As mediator, you will need to set aside your own assumptions, prejudices, and judgments about the dispute
  • You will need to mediate without showing favour to any specific person, interests or solutions
  • You must also ensure that both parties see you as impartial and 100 per cent fair.

A good question to ask yourself, if you intend to mediate, is this: is there any chance of someone seeing you or your actions as favouring one member of staff over another?

Be aware of biases – cultural, racial, gender, generational, for example – and if you anticipate any sticky areas, invite someone else from another part of the organisation to act as mediator or co-mediate with another colleague.

Your position as mediator is influential. Staff who are in dispute may enter mediation with expectations regarding the mediation role, so it’s important to set expectations and clarify what your role as mediator is and what it is not.

Key point

A potential area for misunderstanding is the responsibility for finding agreement. It is important to emphasise that it is their responsibility if they choose to find agreement or not; your role as mediator is to assist the process, whatever the outcome.

When is it time to quit mediation?

Sometimes, individuals are too upset, or are acting disruptively, or they want to stop and leave. At this point, it is important to explore the effect their choice will have on

  • Future interactions with the other individual
  • Their chances of getting what they want
  • Other concerned parties, including team members
  • Their work.

The model of mediation here is voluntary. If individuals want to maintain their position, quit the session, not change matters or take a problem elsewhere, that is their choice. It is always useful to ask what you can do to make it possible for them to come back in and try again, but don’t get desperate about it.

End the session if they are no longer willing to adhere to the process and ground rules. Be sensitive to other participants. Try to remain impartial as you end the session, even if you feel disappointment, and wind up without blame.

Sample statement

Thank you for giving mediation a try. I don’t think we can move further without everyone on board...