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Practicing What We Preach Matters

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‘Practicing What We Preach Matters’

`To what extent do we as mediators apply the expertise of our professional craft

to managing conflict in our daily lives?`

Published in College of Mediators Newsletter Issue 8 August 2012

‘The cobblers children have no shoes’ – the essence of this maxim is to describe the phenomenon whereby certain professionals in any given activity are so busy with work for their customers, that they neglect to use their professional skills to help themselves or those closest to them.

For example – the painter & decorator who never decorates his own house, the web designer that hasn’t finished their website, or the accountant who is late in submitting their own tax return.

In this article I aim to raise issues about the extent to which mediators, as experts in conflict resolution, are able to apply their bread and butter skills and strategies to conflicts that arise in their daily lives – with particular reference to conflict in the workplace and mediation organisations.

In particular I aim to:

  • Name the ‘elephant in the room’ – to identify the problems that we all know exist to a greater or lesser degree, in that in all organisations, conflict is inevitable – and is just as common within mediation organisations.
  • Raise awareness as to the extent of the problem.
  • Identify some common characteristics of the problem.
  • Remind readers of the everyday ‘bread and butter’ professional methods of dispute resolution management.
  • Offer some ideas for how such disputes might be managed.

For some three decades of the development of mediation in the UK, I have witnessed conflicts between professional mediation colleagues that have been perplexing and at times seriously worrying.

The conflicts arising from these disputes have had all of the ingredients of potentially destructive conflict – the early history, the trigger, the spark, the fanning of the flames and finally, in some cases, the destructive conflagration. Such processes are all too familiar to mediators in their daily work with parties in dispute.

Over a period of a few weeks or months conflict narratives are written, line by line and paragraph by paragraph, into metaphorical chapters that are to become the history books, or so called ‘truths’ of the facts and details. Sadly, as always, each person’s history book relates substantially different accounts of what had led up to the rifts.

All too familiarly sides are taken, friends duly stand by friends in support, as the voices of the ‘Greek chorus’ swell to amplify and embroider the histories, each time the latest chapter is narrated within each of the camps.

As specialists in the field of dispute resolution know only too well, conflict in social and organisational environments is axiomatic. It is not a question of if conflict exists but how it is managed that matters. We also know that without conflict there would be very little change for the better, or improvement in most walks of life. ‘Conflict can signal constructive ways of bringing about change and of re-ordering lives. At least the potential for positive change is greater when there is anger than where there is the helplessness and hopelessness of depression.’ (Roberts 2008, p.108).

We can of course be involved in many very constructive disputes, without the process necessarily having to escalate into conflict.

So why this article and why now?

What has prompted me to write this article, is that from my observations, such conflicts continue to occur in mediation organisations, despite the professions many years of developing understanding about how to manage them.

These conflicts can have potentially very serious consequences to individuals, the organisations concerned, and potentially to innocent bystanders, within the wider professional orbit.

Nothing by comparison would cause such high levels of concern for me if for example we compared this issue to other professional groups, such as accountants, lawyers, engineers, doctors, or polititions.

We might hope that they could manage disputes and coflicts wisely, but we would also recognise that, by comparison with mediators, it was not a matter that was so crucial to their core business and professional specialism.

And so it has been that over the past 30 years of association with mediation I can hardly recall a year when I was not witnessing such conflicts in some aspect of mediation, between mediators, staff and managers/trustees, including up to the highest eschalons of our professional structures.

Those of us connected all knew about it, were variously worried and frustrated by it, wrung our hands as witnesses to the fray, and yet often seemed powerless to do anything about it.

Commonly such disputes are often `dissolved` – for example by one side stepping down or leaving – rather than `resolved`, a consequence of which is that the unresolved feelings involved frequently get added to any future conflict in the organisation.

`But its different when its us that are directly involved isn’t it?`

I can understand what people mean when they say that, but no, it should not be different. As mediators we open our doors to the public as experts in conflict management and dispute resolution and should therefore be expected to manage it when it involves us personally.

In fact it is all the more imperative that as mediators we ‘practice what we preach’ and ‘put our money where our mouth is’. Not only must mediation and dispute resolution within our profession be done – it must be seen to be done.

I do want at this point to emphasise that, whilst my practice and training is primarily in family mediation I have also practised and/or delivered training in other contexts including community/neighbour, health care complaints, victim offender and workplace contexts and consequently have had significant contact with their associated organisations. My training activity over the past 12 years has also included delivering training programmes in some 15 different countries including Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and North America. From that experience I can say that the issues covered in this article are by no means just a UK phenomenon – it would appear that they are both universal and multi-cultural.

I also appreciate that experience in one mediation context, for example family, may make it difficult for a practitioner to apply understanding and skills to a different context such as their own workplace disputes. However my wide ranging experience suggests that most of the issues, conflict dynamics, skills and strategies are universal across all mediation contexts and therefore, arguably should be transferrable, both in our comprehension and understanding.

So what then can be done? – some ideas for managing the conflicts.

It is very difficult to think of new ways to recommend for managing such disputes, so what follows is more of a reminder and a checklist of ideas, many of which will be very familiar to experienced mediators. Indeed I hesitate to offer recommendations, given how ‘daily bread and butter’ like they are to those us involved in the dispute resolution field.

At one level I risk accusations of sounding patronising, ‘holier than thou’ or ‘teaching granny to suck eggs’ – and yet challenge and change has to start somewhere so here goes.

Perhaps this would be a good point to remind readers of some of the core tenets of our everyday practice in the business of dispute resolution. I refer here to the principles, values, knowledge, skills and strategies that mediators deliver routinely to their customers, and yet often seem so unable to apply consistently when it involves ourselves.

  • Search for interests and needs that underpin positions.

Mediators know well how the magic moments of mediation happen, when through the skillful and strategic use of questions, they uncover layers of shared interests and values – and more important still, shared fears and mutual needs.

Many practitioners will recal the ‘Positions Interests and Needs’ [PIN], commonly used in training and referred to by Andrew Floyer Acland. The three levels of the pyramid diagram show how, at the peak are the positions that disputants take and typically bring to mediation. The second level relates to values and interests and the third level to the deeper needs of all parties to the dispute. Like the iceberg, the tip, or peak, is often all that is observable above the surface in the initial stages of mediation. (Acland 1990, p.152)

If we envisage the pyramid for each party printed on a separate clear acetate sheet laid side by side, there is no connection between each parties interests and needs. Through needs-led questions the mediator, as it were, superimposes one sheet over the other and gradually draws them closer together, so that the common areas of interest and need are gradually exposed. The closer they are drawn together, the greater these new sub-pyramids emerge in the centre as joint areas of common values and interests – and more important still at the lower level, an area of joint needs.

So for example, when directors and managers attempt to impose new contracts of employment terms and conditions, often without prior consultation with those who are directly affected by the changes, both sides tend to quickly assume ‘positions’.

Typically these positions include positional statements by employers such as ‘Sign the new contracts now or face dismissal’ – perhaps adding some moral pressure by citing the potentially serious financial consequences for the organisation unless the contracts are accepted.

On the staff side the responses are commonly along the lines of ‘Impose those contracts and we will have no option but to withdraw our labour’. Before very long, such opening position statements tend to degenerate into even greater threats.

The ‘needs-led’ analysis employed by mediators, as referred to above, gradually moves people off their positions and uncovers such mutual needs and fears as, the need to maintain employment, income, productivity and customer services.

Overall there is usually, almost in every case, also a need for a reduction in stress, distress and dis-ease, together with a need to avoid the potential loss of financial and time resources, by resorting to more formal procedures such as tribunals, arbitration and litigation.

When listening to parties in dispute, it is commonplace to hear each party to the conflict speak of the other as being a ‘control freak’, of ‘refusing to step down or let go of control`, of ‘adopting rigid positions’ – and of threatening very serious actions unless the other side backs down.

Commonly, each side speaks of how they personally are ‘only interested in the best interests of the organisation, productivity and customer services’. This is akin to the separating parent who, whilst going all out to disempower the other parent, will commonly claim to be, ‘Only concerned with the best interests and safety of the child’.

Both sides tend to state that, try as they might, they simply cannot understand the others issues, grievance or complaint and that it is the other side that refuses to engage in seeking a resolution.

Despite knowing as much as I do about dispute resolution, I own to being as capable as any of us imperfect human beings, of getting into interpersonal conflict.

This occurs through a natural inclination – often by a fear of loss – towards  adopting a rigid position, making threats, and writing my own ideosyncratic narrative of the what, who, and how of the dispute. Alas, if I was just half as good a person as I know how to be, I would be truly amazing.

What has changed for me over the years of involvement in dispute resolution, is that after a few days or weeks of such behaviour I now hear a little inner voice that goes something like – ‘Hang on, you know very well what is going on here and what you are you doing  – you are stoking the fire and fanning the flames. What this situation needs instead is for you to initiate a dialogue in which you ask the significant others to talk about their wants, needs and fears, and ask in return that they will listen to yours’.

From such ‘listening with understanding’ actvities will hopefully flow agreements as to how to resolve the dispute and re-establish good working relationships to the mutual benefit of all concerned.

  • ‘Remember that to be a mediator you must believe that the majority of people in dispute are capable of being a) reasonable and b) rational. The problem is that when they come to you they are often behaving in ways that are very unreasonable and irrational.` These were the words of an ACAS officer, addressing a group of community mediators I had just trained many years ago. Sadly I forget his name but will never forget his wise words, especially when confronted with unreasonableness and irrationality.
  • Remember to reframe the dispute and crisis as an opportunity for change and transformation towards better understandings and the greater good, health and well-being of our institutions and professional colleagues.
  • Don’t resort to the old ‘personality clash’ opt-out – a commonly used explanation by disputants to account for problems – and yet how hard it is to resist sometimes.

In my early days of practice I had a team colleague who from many conversations and indeed arguments, appeared to have nothing whatsoever in common with me. We both seemed to be aware that our values appeared to be so far at odds, that we managed to avoid co-working together for a year or so – essentially perhaps on my part, out of a fear that these differences would inevitably impair our working partnership. Eventually it became clear that this avoidant behaviour was having a negative impact on the rest of the team. Discovering this, I invited the colleague to discus it – as a result of which we agreed work a case together. In the reality we worked very effectively together, and continued to do so, with no demonstrable evidence of any of the conflicts of values I had feared.

In referring to this problem, Andrew Floyer Acland writes: ‘The only way I know of actually resolving a personality clash is head-on: by admitting the feeling and setting out to trace its causes. If this is done fully and honestly, looking at each other’s: Values, Opinions, Assumptions about each other, Prejudices about background, education, even accent or race, then maybe the situation can be redeemed’. (Acland 1990, p.61).

  • Use your primary communication organs proportionately – two ears, two eyes and one mouth – i.e. do more listening and observing than speaking – some people speak because they have something to say, others speak because they have to say something.
  • Push for needs-led discussions that identify not what you and the other(s) don’t want, but what you all do want and need.
  • Maintain ‘adult – adult’ transactions. (Whatling 2001). Regardless of the number of ‘crossed transactions’ you get in response, the more you respond in ‘adult – adult’ problem-solving mode, the harder it is for the respondant to cross the transaction from ‘controlling/critical parent’ or ‘rebelious/angry child’.
  • Start from a `life position` of I’m OK – You’re OK (Harris 1973 in Whatling 2012, p.40/41)
  • Record and share the issues in neutral mutual language.
  • Never press the email or text ‘send’ button till you have slept on it and recognise the damage that cryptic electronic comunications create in todays social, personal and professional world.
  • Once the stories have been articulated and ventilated, push for future-focussed `SMART` outcome objectives – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bounded. Such objectives should also be needs-led and include statements of principles against which to evaluate outcome agreements – for example for a mutual commitment to early win/win settlements and a return to former constructive and productive working relationships.
  • Be ‘hard on the problem and soft on the people’. Externalise the problem as an ‘it’ rather than a ‘they’ – a surprisingly powerful and effective technique described by John Winlade and Gerald Monk as `Externalising conversations`. ‘As mediators externalise a problem, they speak about it as if it were an external object or person exerting a negative influence on the parties but they do not identify it closely with one party or the other’ (Winslade & Monk 2001, p.144).

So for example, such a mediator would stop talking about the people who are causing the problem and instead would identify the issue that is responsible. It is not that the working partnership has broken down because a certain person ‘fails to respond to emails’, ‘is rude, manipulative or a bully’, but that a ‘communication breakdown’ or ‘trust problem’ is what is preventing the resolution of the dispute – ‘it’ having come between the parties in dispute. The narrative mediator will often use an object such as a pen to symbolise the ‘it’, perhaps placing it down on the table between the disputants whilst talking about when and how it had come between them and caused such problems.

Having thus externalised and objectified the problem the mediator will invite the disputants to identify actions that might begin to remove the ‘it’ problem from the working relationship – usually maintaining the symbolism by simultaneously removing the pen from between the parties. Like so many of the apparently simple techniques and strategies mediators use, I never cease to be surprised at how powerful this technique can be, particularly in the all important business of face-saving.

  • Resist at all costs the temptation to make threats. When we do that it is usually a signal of desperation and we are frequently not in a position to carry them through – not least with any less cost to us than the other side. ‘Threats are made out of weakness; promises are made out of strength’ (Haynes 1989, p.42) Or as John puts it so succinctly in his video ‘Powerful people act, powerless people threaten’. (John Haynes video of Debbie and Michael – ‘Haynes on Haynes’).
  • Try to avoid the natural human temptation to engage in the psychological defense mechanism of ‘displacement’. We are all bound to want to protect our own private, (internal), and public, (external), self image or ‘face’. When they hear a client say ‘I know I wasn’t always the ideal spouse/boss/business partner, the mediator knows only too well that the next word will be a resounding ‘BUT’ – usually followed by a long list of the sins and failings of the other. To resist doing so is hard, since if we accept even 50% of the blame or reponsibility for what is going wrong, we will still find that hard to live with and with its negative impact on our self image.
  • `Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?` [Matthew 7:3].

‘Conflict provides opportunities for people to express aspects of their personality which are normally kept hidden. More than this, people project on to others their own personality or behaviour: they accuse other people of doing things or behaving in ways in which they themselves are behaving, or want to behave’. (Acland 1990, p.105).

  • Ask for help from trusted colleagues, who are known to both sides to be capable of being objective and impartial.
  • Don’t react or retaliate – A friend of mine going through divorce used to read me the latest inflammatory and goading letter from his wife’s solicitor – and then his own equally adversarial response. Several times I pointed out that by far the best way to end this war of words was not to react. His response was inevitably that he just could not resist it. In effect he was enjoying the adrenalin rush and ritual of this ‘game’ despite the inevitable damaging side-effect it was having on his relationship with his children.
  • Remember that win/win is not just the absence of win/lose or lose/lose, but an outcome where the ‘total result of the outcome is greater than the sum of it’s parts’. In other words, by engaging in constructive option development, we may well uncover outcomes that are better for all concerned, including organisations, than either side had previously identified.

But what if they wont play?

Mediator colleagues in dispute frequently tell of how, despite doing everything to engage the other side in dialogue, they won’t respond.

  • Try some ‘negotiation jujitsu’ as so well defined by Fisher & Ury in their all time classic negotiation skills text ‘Getting to Yes’ – ‘If the other side anounces a firm position, you may be tempted to critisise and reject it. If they critisise your proposal you may be tempted to defend it and dig yourself in’. In short, if they push you hard, you will tend to push back. Do not push back. When they assert their positions, do not reject them. When they attack your ideas, don’t defend them. As in the Oriental martial arts of judo and jujitsu, avoid pitting your strength against them directly; instead use your skill to step aside and turn their strength to your ends. Rather than resisting their force, channel it into exploring issues, inventing options for mutual gain, and searching for independent standards.` See their book for a more detailed account of how to do this. (Fisher & Ury 1981, pp.113-114).

In conclusion, I often recall the wise words often spoken at training events by the late John Haynes, who described the mission of the mediator as ‘searching for the good in people’ to which he would usually add – ‘and you can choose ATTRIBUTION DETAIL »whether you spell ‘good’ with two o’s or one’.

My hope is that mediators everywhere will consider and reflect on this paper in the spirit that it is written. Despite my continued doubts about the wisdom of offering it for publication I keep coming back to the essential conundrum that is – what is it that, as experts in our field and craft, makes it so difficult for us to routinely practice what we preach?


Ackland A.F. (1990) A Sudden Outbreak of Common Sense – Managing Conflict Through Mediation. London: Hutchinson Business Books.

Fisher, R. and Ury, W. (1981), Getting to Yes Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.  London: Business Books Ltd

Haynes, J. and Haynes, G.l. (1989) Mediating Divorce Casebook of Strategies for Successful Family Negotiations.  London: Jossey-Bass.

Roberts, M. (2008) Mediation in Family Disputes. Principles of Practice, (Third Edition) Farnham: Ashgate Publishing.

Whatling, T. (2001). Transactional Analysis Matters the Potential Application of Transactional Analysis to Mediation, UK College of Family Mediation Journal Vol.1 No.3.

Whatling, T. (2012) Mediation Skills and Strategies a Practical Guide London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London & Philadelphia

Winslade, J. and Monk, G.D. (2001) Narrative Mediation – a New Approach to Conflict Resolution. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass Ltd.

© ‘TW Training works’

Tony Whatling. Mediator, Consultant, Trainer.