The Mediator’s Greatest Temptation

Mediators are often faced with the temptation of suggesting solutions using ‘would-you-not-try…’ questions. This is one of the frequent traps that rookie and seasoned mediators fall into. It is also referred to as the ‘I-Can-Fix-It’ feeling. This is understandable because as humans we usually have that tingling sensation of possessing the perfect solution to another person’s problem and a compelling impulse to impose it on them.  Could it be an innate desire to recognized as wise? I don’t know! Or, perhaps, as Michael Bungay Stanier in his book ‘The Coaching Habit’ suggests, could it be that we have “somewhat lost control of the conversation.”  We need to be seen as “adding value” [with the added bonus] “of staying in control of the situation.”   After all, it seems, “You’ve spent years delivering advice and getting promoted and praised for it.”

All that notwithstanding, I stand firmly with the side that says that mediators should resist as best they can, and should not be controlled and overtaken by the ‘I-Can-Fix-It’ feeling during mediation sessions.

Mediator Autonomy (reflected in the offering of solutions) Undermines the Confidence and Ability of Parties to Take Responsibility for Their Problems:

What we fail to realize many times is that presenting solutions to parties, as a mediator, undermines their ability to have a sense of choice and autonomy over what they do. It blows out some of the fire that will spark up their own motivation and inhibits them from seeking out the necessary solutions to their conflict for themselves.  This is often why such mediator-suggested solutions often fail ultimately because, really, it is the mediator’s agreement, not the parties’.  Being too quick to propose (from the party’s view, read ‘impose’), brings back memories of the almighty judge on his/her pedestal in the court of law.  Remember, the absence of this altar, is part of the attraction to mediation, in the first place.  So, it may create a barrier between the mediator and the parties.  Again, this can make them resist proposed solutions. Therefore, even if the mediator’s solution is really the ‘most appropriate’ one, he or she might have put people off it by being the one to present it.

As mediators, we should always be mindful that parties are at mediation because they have run out of their own resources to sort out their conflict.  However, what we need to do is redirect them to their inner ability to effectively handle the situation.  To do otherwise, is to reinforce their helplessness.  You are also robbing them of that non-judgmental and safe space to sort out their issues by themselves.  Worse still, since such mediator-proposed solution will most likely favour one party over the other, it will leave the less-favoured party feeling you are against him or her. Result? Trust and confidence are diminished if not totally lost, leading to a failed mediation session.

Conclusion

The mediator can support the parties to resolve their conflict in many ways and presenting the answers to them IS NOT one of the ways.  So, facilitate, even evaluate if you will, but DO NOT give people solutions. For, when you act on the ‘I-Can-Fix-It’ feeling, the only person’s needs getting met in that moment are yours.

8 Comments

  1. Yemi I totally totally agree with you and as also rightly said making suggestions to Parties only helps to reinforce their helplessness.
    Unfortunately this is what a lot of Mediators do in an effort to increase their settled cases. Mediators need to understand that even if the case is not settled by the Parties, discussions would have opened up a lot of possibilities and given Parties a better understanding of the issues between them. With this moving forward they will be better able to take steps or reorganize priorities that will help them to sustain a better relationship in the future.

  2. This is light indeed in the darkness of conlict and salt not only for the relief of bitterness between the parties but for the preservation of their originality, while profering solutions for their own problems, devoid of often toxic artificial preservatives. Seasoned mediation. Thank you sir.

  3. Thank you for this wonderful submission. As a mediator, I have constantly sought to improve my socratic questioning skills and active listening. These two tools have helped me to remain neutral and independent. The parties will eventually tell you what you need to hear to help facilitate a meeting point with the opposite side. Also questions help the parties to do a self assessment and thereby arrive at the same conclusion that the mediator would have merely handed down. Mediation is a very complicated process and practitioners must keep improving themselves otherwise they will find shortcuts most appealing when the chips are down.

  4. Thank you for a useful article. Rightly so, Mediators should engage the parties to discover their own solutions and never inflict a ready-made answers on them.

  5. Apart from verbally making a suggestion, you need to be mindful of your body language. If your facial expression seems to beg one of the parties to accept an offer, it may be detrimental to the outcome.

  6. This is why communication which is a major tool in Mediation has to be used carefully. Active listening . summarising , rephrasing are all very good for getting the right message across to parties in a verbal form. In addition non verbal forms of communication such as eye contact, body language, body spacing and so on have to be used consciously so as not to send the wrong message which could affect the process.
    Mediation is hard work but the end result of a win win makes every value deployed well worth it.
    Yinka Kolade

    1. Very true and even beyond “tool”; it needs to be adopted as a virtue. It should be an expression of Mediator’s true nature and character, not merely won for the occasion. Thank you.

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