The Workplace Mediator’s “not to do” list

I recently attended Consensio’s Accredited Workplace Mediation Certificate course, accredited by the Open College Network (OCN). As I will soon be working in the field of Psychology, I noticed the many similarities between what I learned on the mediation course and what I am studying at University. Empathy is something that has been extensively studied in Psychology, and it is something that consistently came up on the mediation course as one of the core skills of a workplace mediator.

Empathy is defined as the experience of understanding another person’s state of mind from their perspective, allowing people to see the world through someone else’s eyes. This allows mediators to recognise what the parties may be feeling and the cause of these feelings. This plays an important role during mediation as, within the safe space created by the mediator, both parties are able to listen to how the other is feeling and the reasons for this. Empathic communication is a skill we learned during the training. It sounds easy, but being empathic does not come naturally to everyone and learning how to show empathy can at times be a challenge.

Since the mediation training course, I have been reflecting on some of the other key skills of a workplace mediator. I have therefore come up with a different type of TO DO list, a NOT TO DO list. This should help new workplace mediators as they embark on their journey to becoming an empathic, skillful and effective practitioner.

So here are some of the things mediators should avoid:

  1. Giving advice: Sometimes we cannot help but tell others what we think they should do. During mediation, this has to be avoided. Remember that it is the parties who need to determine what is best for them and who need to take ownership over what they agree.
  2. Interpreting other’s behaviour: We all strive to find causes for others’ behaviours by making assumptions about their intentions. This takes away the focus from the speaker and, more often than not, the interpretations end up being wrong.
  3. Sympathy: Feeling sorry for the parties or sharing your own feelings about what they have said is not the role of the mediator. Parties do not share their feelings and stories to get a reaction from mediators, they simply seek to explain their behaviour or feelings, sometimes even defend themselves from accusations made by the other party.
  4. Consoling: Telling parties that the situation will improve to make them feel “better”. Consoling someone who is upset is a natural reaction most people have. However, the situation can only improve if parties want it to improve and work together to make it happen.
  5. Shutting down: Discounting people’s feelings is sometimes easier than having to sit through some very strong emotions. However, discounting parties’ feelings does not get to the reason why parties are expressing certain emotions or how to change them. By discounting or ignoring their feelings, we won’t understand their needs, which is key to a successful mediation.
  6. Fact-finding: Questioning parties about facts to find out how they got to the current situation or to change their behaviour is not useful either. The focus should be on people’s perceptions of what happened, how they feel about it, and how they want to change things to improve the situation.

Most of the points above are natural reactions most people have when someone is telling them they are going through a difficult time. This is part of the reason why empathy is a difficult skill to master. The behaviours listed above may be useful when we interact with a friend or relative, but they have no place during mediation as they block empathic communication and turn the focus away from the parties and what they need during mediation. Mediation training can help prospective mediators move from their “default empathic responses” and build a new set of skills that allow them to communicate empathically with parties in a useful and effective manner.

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