The Gardener, the Carpenter and… the Workplace Mediator?

What does a book by a developmental psychologist, who writes about the profound flaws in modern parenting, have in common with workplace mediation? Actually, quite a lot.

I am a mother of young children who likes to read parenting books, and I am also a workplace mediator. Now that I have read “The Gardener and the Carpenter” by Alison Gopnik, I see a lot of parallels between her critiques of parenting and my critiques of how some workplace mediators apply their mediation skills.

In her book, Gopnik argues that trying (as most parents do) to help our children win a succession of tasks in life and achieve certain outcomes, may actually limit the very potential we are trying to foster: “Our job is not to shape our children’s minds; it’s to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows.”

The gardener and the carpenter are metaphors about the parent-child relationship. And in Gopnik’s view, many modern parents see themselves as carpenters. They chisel away at their children in the hope that this will enable them to achieve a particular goal, such as a child who will excel academically and end up at a top University. However, when we garden, our belief system is profoundly different. We know that we are not the ones who are single-handedly creating flowers and plants. Instead, we are creating the environment in which flowers and plants have the best chance of surviving and thriving. If parents see themselves as gardeners, the focus is to create an environment in which our children can become themselves, rather than trying to mould them into something we would like them to become.

For me, workplace mediators are also gardeners, not carpenters. We are called in to facilitate a conversation between individuals in conflict so that they can, if possible, achieve a mutually acceptable resolution to their conflict. Unlike how some workplace mediators use their skills, we aren’t there to control the conversation or the outcome of mediation. We aren’t there to single-handedly resolve a conflict, but to create an environment in which people in conflict are able to speak, listen, learn about themselves and each other, and collaboratively explore and discuss solutions that are mutually acceptable to them.

As 2018 approaches, let’s remember that humans and human relationships aren’t neat and tidy, but that they can be wild and unruly, like plants and flowers in a garden. Workplace mediation works best when we take this into account and allow people to be empowered by the process of mediation and to take responsibility for their own actions and solutions.

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