Peer mediation is an approach that has been used in schools in the US and UK to help to manage conflicts and disagreements.
Formal peer mediation approaches provide training for chosen individuals (the ‘peer mediators’) to help them to intervene in disagreements and support the participants to reach an agreement.
In general, peer mediators have a formal and recognised position. However, anyone can develop the skills to mediate in social difficulties, and the skills are as useful for adults as children.
Disagreements may arise between colleagues at work, or between individuals in a particular social group, such as a voluntary committee. Being able to draw on mediation skills to defuse situations can help to avoid problems escalating.
What is Peer Mediation?
In schools and colleges, peer mediation is where children in the same age-group help to resolve problems between groups or individuals.
Peer mediators do not:
- Tell anyone what to do;
- Take sides; or
- Gossip about what they have seen and heard.
Instead, they work towards a win-win solution for both sides, helping the two sides to come together and develop a solution that works for both of them.
This is therefore a very similar approach to other forms of mediation (and see our page on Mediation Skills for more).
Skills Required for Peer Mediation
Peer mediators require very similar skills to those of other mediators.
- They need to be good at listening. This may be hard for children, who are still developing their skills, and in particular they may have to try to listen without judgement. See our page on Listening Skills for more.
- They need to understand the importance of Clarifying and Questioning to be sure that they, and all those involved, understand the situation. Establishing ‘facts’ may be much less important than setting out the points of view of those involved, and making sure that both sides understand the other’s opinions.
- Peer mediators need to have reasonably good Emotional Intelligence to understand what is going on under the surface. In particular, it helps to have strong empathy so that they can put themselves in the place of both participants and help those involved to do the same. Nobody is expecting young children to be able to do this immediately but, when asked about the skills required of a peer mediator, a group of nine- to ten-year olds said that they needed to be kind and to understand feelings, which does not sound unreasonable.
- It is important, particularly for younger children, that those acting as peer mediators have a reasonable sense of fairness and justice. Peer mediators have to be scrupulous about not taking sides, which means that they need to understand about being fair and even-handed.
- Peer mediators should have good communication skills. Their Verbal Communication Skills need to enable them to paraphrase and describe emotions in less emotive language, and also to help participants to see the situation in a different light. They also need to understand non-verbal communication to help them identify what is not being said.
The Process of Peer Mediation
Every school or college using a peer mediation process will probably have a slightly different formal process that it uses.
However, if you are acting informally as a peer mediator, whether as a child or as an adult, you may want a process to follow to ensure that the situation remains fair.
Our page on Mediation Skills sets out a process for a formal mediation, but this is probably too complex.
You may wish instead to use a more informal process such as this:
At the Start
Get the participants to agree some ground rules for the process.
For example, say something like “I think it might help to talk this through more calmly, and I’m very happy to help with that. May I suggest that we agree that we will take it in turns to speak, and not interrupt each other?” If you have been asked to help by one or both parties, you might also like to explain that you are taking a neutral role.
Understanding the Situation
The next stage is to get both participants to set out their stories, giving each of them time to speak without the other interrupting.
Use questioning and clarifying to make sure that you have the situation straight. After each person has set out their position, summarise what they have said to check that you, and the other person, have understood correctly. You may wish to include a statement of the emotions that they are feeling (for example, “I can see that you’re feeling very angry about this, and I hope that this discussion will help with that”), as recognising and naming emotions is very powerful for those involved.
Helping the Participants to Look Forward not Back
The key to helping to resolve conflicts is to look forward, rather than back.
‘Back’ takes you to blame and recriminations about what’s happened. ‘Forward’, by contrast, asks the participants to say what they are going to do next, and how they will take their relationship forward. You might, for example, ask each in turn “How would you like to see the situation resolved?”, or “What would be your ideal outcome from this situation?” This may help to demonstrate areas of agreement.
It may be a good option to suggest a break for coffee or a walk outside, especially if the discussion gets a bit heated.
This gives everyone a chance to clear their heads.
The next stage should be to look for options for solutions.
The simplest way is probably to ask both participants what options they can see, and also suggest options yourself. It doesn’t really matter if some of the options are impossible, or downright silly, because the more options, the easier it is to identify good ones, and then move to an agreement.
You can help the participants to move to an agreement by noting areas of common ground, and suggesting where they are coming together. You should also use paraphrasing and clarifying to make sure that everyone has understood the terms of the agreement that they seem to be reaching.
“Not my problem, guv!”
It is important to remember that the problem or situation must remain ‘owned’ by the participants, as must the solution or agreement.
It is not your problem as mediator, you are simply helping them to solve it.
For more about this, you may be interested in our pages on What is Coaching? and Facilitation Skills, as both those processes are similar in style.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Learn more about how to effectively resolve conflict and mediate personal relationships at home, at work and socially.
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