Mediation is the involvement of an impartial third party to support and help those involved in a conflict to find a resolution.
The key difference between negotiation and mediation is that in negotiation, the parties involved work out their own agreement. In mediation, they have the support of the third party, the mediator, to help them come to an agreement.
Mediation, whether formal or informal, can often help solve conflicts that have gone beyond the negotiation stage.
Characteristics of Mediation
A key aspect of mediation is that the mediator does not ‘sort things out’ or make any decisions for the parties involved. Instead, he or she helps the parties involved work together to develop their own agreement.
- Voluntary participation
- Face-to-face discussions between the parties in conflict
- An unbiased mediator without any decision-making power who helps those involved to understand each other’s point of view and come to an agreement
- Equal opportunities for all participants to speak and explain their perspective
- All relevant information being shared
- A shared agreement between the parties
Although there are many trained mediators working to resolve conflicts, anyone can act as a mediator, whether in a disagreement between colleagues or to bring two quarrelling friends or neighbours together again.
The Mediation Process
Although every conflict and every mediation process will be slightly different, there are a number of steps which you will need to consider in every case, and points to take into account.
1 - Preparation
You will need to lay out the ‘ground rules’ for the mediation process. Usually some basic rules of communication and confidentiality will be essential, but there may also be others pertinent to that situation. For example, you might want to set out that only one person talks at a time, and while someone is talking, the others listen in silence, that there is to be no verbal abuse at any time, and that all that happens remains confidential unless both parties agree to speak about it outside mediation. You may also wish to set out the mediator’s role: to be impartial and help the parties to reach their solution, but also to protect the parties from each other if necessary.
You should also consider whether you should have separate meetings with each party to develop a better understanding of the issues before mediating a joint meeting.
2 - Reconstructing and Understanding the Conflict
Your task at this stage is to listen to the participants’ stories, whether together or separately, and clarify what they want to achieve from the process.
If you are meeting both participants together, it is helpful if you can summarise the main points of conflict in a neutral way that both can agree upon, and propose an agenda for the discussion: an order in which issues should be discussed. It can also be helpful at this stage to name the emotions that participants are feeling, to show that they have been recognised and understood.
3 - Defining Points of Agreement and Dispute
During this stage, your role is to help the participants to move towards a position where they start to understand each other’s point of view, and can then begin to resolve a shared problem.
One way to do this is to think of it as moving from a focus on the past to one on the future. It can also be helpful to use paraphrasing and summary in neutral terms to help the participants identify areas of agreement, and to check understanding. It’s extremely powerful to reflect feelings back to the participants, as it shows both that they have been heard.
Don’t be afraid to suggest a break for coffee or a walk outside, or even an adjournment to another day if you think things are getting a bit heated. ‘Time out’ is a valuable reflection opportunity for everyone.
4 - Creating Options for Agreement
A useful starting point for this stage is to identify the simplest area, or the one on which there is most agreement, and suggest resolving that first, to give a ‘quick win’.
Useful techniques for developing options include brainstorming. At this stage, ‘anything goes’! You then need to help the participants to develop evaluation criteria, which should ideally be objective and in order of importance.
Your role here is chiefly to make sure that all participants are equally involved in generating options and developing evaluation criteria, and that they cover all parts of the problem. Make sure that you are reflecting their opinions and not your own, but you can point out linkages between options and/or problems.
Once the options have been evaluated, you’ll need to guide them to a single solution that suits all parties, and help them to fine-tune it if necessary.
5 - Developing an Agreement
Like objectives, an agreement should be SMART, that is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound. You can help the participants to achieve this by:
- Writing down the proposal in neutral language, and reading it back to them.
- Writing down individual points so they are clear and understood.
- Clarifying any general or vague points, for example, by asking the participants to agree concrete behavioural changes with deadlines for achievement.
- Avoid legalistic language, and keep everything simple.
- Summarise progress and next steps, including setting a deadline for any future meetings, and identifying any remaining areas of difficulty, and options for their resolution.
- Being positive about progress and the fact that everyone has remained engaged.
- Offering your continued support as a mediator if required.
- Ensuring both parties sign the agreement then and there, and close the meeting once agreement is reached.
Skills Mediators Need
A mediator needs a range of skills, including:
- Active listening skills (see our pages on Listening Skills and Active Listening for more);
- Questioning and clarifying skills (see our pages on Clarifying and Questioning for more) to grasp both the facts and the areas of controversy;
- Emotional intelligence to understand the underlying emotions.
- Summarising skills to set out the main points of controversy, and underlying emotions, and also to help the participants to re-frame issues in less emotive language. See our pages on Communicating in Difficult Situations and Giving and Receiving Feedback for more.
- Empathy to help each party to stand in each other’s shoes and understand each other’s point of view.
Perhaps most importantly, a mediator must not take sides, or be seen to be acting unfairly. You will therefore need to acknowledge points made by both parties, and spend equal time with each person or on their issues. It’s never going to help to point out that someone is being unreasonable, but you can help them take a ‘reality check’ by asking what they would consider a reasonable outcome, and then asking whether they think the other party would agree.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Learn more about how to effectively resolve conflict and mediate personal relationships at home, at work and socially.
Our eBooks are ideal for anyone who wants to learn about or develop their interpersonal skills and are full of easy-to-follow, practical information.
Although a little humility is always a good thing, it is important to remember that mediation might not always work, and that it’s not always the fault of the mediator if it doesn’t.
For example, if participants do not come ready to find a shared solution it is going to be difficult to mediate one. Cross-cultural disputes are always going to be hard to mediate, because what is acceptable behaviour in one culture may be totally unacceptable in another.
A good mediator will always try to be aware of what else is going on, trying to understand any hidden agendas and barriers to effective problem solving. An effective mediator will, at the same time, be able to distance themselves from the problem.
The role of the mediator is to help others resolve their problems in a mutually agreeable way without getting bogged down in the problem themselves.