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Mediation is an informal, solution-focused process where an impartial third party helps two or more people discuss a dispute and work toward a solution that is acceptable to them all.

The key factor is that the people in dispute are encouraged to adopt a collaborative stance towards finding a solution rather than the more usual adversarial positioning that produced the conflict in the first place.

Participation is voluntary, and the mediator is there to facilitate dialogue, using his or her skills and experience. This means that the outcome of the dispute is decided by the disputing parties, not the mediator. Mediated agreements tend to succeed because they result from a process that allows parties to co-create their own solutions.

When is mediation appropriate?

Mediation works in situations where the parties are willing to participate in discussions aimed at resolving the dispute. Obviously, when people are in conflict they may not be ‘willing to participate’ and they may initially reject the idea of mediation. However, part of the mediator’s role is to engage with the disputants and explain the approach. All most mediators ask is to have that initial discussion with each party, in private, to understand their views and see what can be done.

As the mediator’s role is to facilitate dialogue, this approach is particularly valuable when the parties need to maintain a continuing relationship. This makes it ideal for workplace mediation, and it is used in many other settings such as family, community, schools, cross-cultural and socio-political.

Something that’s often overlooked when there is a conflict between employees or staff members is that the ‘formal’ processes in organisations – disciplinary and grievance procedures, for example – can alienate the disputants still further.

They do nothing to restore the working relationship between colleagues. As the people in conflict usually have to work together (if they didn’t there’d be no conflict), surely this should be a primary aim of any attempt to settle a dispute. What’s more, people who know – or have learned – how to get on with each other can generally sort out their own differences like ‘responsible adults’.

What is involved?

Once the mediator has made contact with disputing parties, he or she will meet with each of them separately to ensure that the case is appropriate for mediation, and to answer any questions. If both sides agree then a series of meetings will follow, separately at first and then involving both parties and the mediator together. Typically this will all be done in a day, though mediation can equally take place over several shorter sessions. Overall the process should last no more than a few hours in either case.

The benefits of mediation

Mediation is entirely a voluntary and confidential process where the parties work collaboratively to find their own outcome. The benefits far outweigh the time involved and the cost of mediation. When these factors are weighed against the potential damage an unresolved conflict can cause (it ripples out and affects others, not just the disputants), the risks to the organisation, and the losses which can accrue (think of the lost management time, for example), mediation wins hands-down.

A final point under the ‘benefits’ heading is that, following mediation, the parties report peripheral advantages such as improved relationships colleages generally, greater self-understanding, and insight. Lastly, most agree that they’ll be able to handle future differences more constructively, without allowing them to escalate, as they did pre-meditation.

Barry Winbolt is an accredited workplace mediator, former Chair of Conflict Resolution at the Institute of Family Therapy, where he taught courses on Conflict Resolution and Mediation Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London,

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