For over 25 years I have been mediating disputes/conflicts, and on the odd occasion I have had the question: “What is it you actually do?” 

It’s not an easy question to answer and it behoves another question: What is mediation? For example: Is it a practice, a calling, a profession, a vocation, a role, or simply just a catch all for those that help others to sort their stuff? 

Imagine a person who has never been involved in a formal dispute in the courts and on the first hearing of the matter the Judge makes an order referring the matter to mediation. What would that person think a mediator does? Would they think: Are they, like, sort of, counsellors? Do they have come kind of ‘fairy dust’ that they sprinkle that reduces tension and resolves differences?

A bit extreme perhaps, but relevant in an everyday sense. Hopefully by the end of this blurb you will have a clearer sense of the questions above, and maybe even some answers.

In Chapter 3 of Bringing Peace into the Room, Peter Adler describes many aspects of being a mediator – he outlines the classic background to a dispute, and the epiphany moment that arrives to call in the third party:

People (usually, but not always, of good will) espouse divergent positions or interests. Each side seeks advantage. They clash! They attempt to work things out. They fail. They start demonizing each other. Communications channels get clogged or severed. Deep distrust starts to permeate every transaction. Matters radiate centrifugally or implode centripetally and the dispute escalates. Each side counts on threats, brinkmanship, and bluff to further its position. Finally, staring into the mirror of uncertainty and possibly an inferno of future conflict, someone says “Let’s try to mediate”. There is shuffling of feet, small mutterings and throat clearings, a bit of denial and face saving, and finally people consent to sit down and negotiate. To paraphrase … “Having made a big mess in the kitchen, then now want me to come in and cook them a nice omelette.”

In this kind of melodrama, I have always thought my little part was fairly straight forward. I help people organise difficult, always touchy, and sometimes far-reaching, discussions. If I can, I shepherd them though the substantive, procedural and psychological maze they have created and bring some sense of discipline to the process of communication, negotiation, and agreement seeking. ..”

All pretty straight forward, right?  Maybe!

John Paul Lederach has been a mediator in some of the most intractable conflicts across the globe. In his Book, the Moral Imagination, he challenges what it requires to break cycles of conflict and violence. He poses the following question at the head of his text (p.5): ‘How do we transcend the cycles of violence that bewitch our human community while still living in them?’ 

Fairly challenging question for mediators!

Lederarch goes on to pose an approach that he says is a start to answering the question:

“Transcending violence is forged by the capacity to generate, mobilise, and build the moral imagination. The kind of imagination to which I refer is mobilized when four disciplines and capacities are held together and practiced by those who find their way to rise above violence. Stated simply, the moral imagination requires the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies; the ability to sustain a paradoxical curiosity that embraces complexity without reliance on dualistic polarity; the fundamental belief in and pursuit of the creative act; and the acceptance of the inherent risk of stepping into the mystery of the unknown that lies beyond the far too familiar landscape of violence.” 

Since I commenced practice as a mediator I have been challenged by an endless variety of circumstances before me, and have been constantly amazed by the behaviours of people in conflict. What I have learned is that helping others to find peace is not easy, but that it becomes a lot more manageable (and rewarding) if intervention is informed by consideration of Lederarch’s four disciplines. 

Let there be no doubt it’s a tough gig being a mediator; but it is incredibly rewarding particularly when equilibrium is restored. Somewhere in another book I think it is written: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of god.”  Whether you believe in a deity or not, or just want to hedge your bets, being a mediator has its rewards.

If you are interested in the many aspects of mediation, including the process, the philosophy and institutional structures supporting it, and the skills to be an intervener, I’d be happy to help. Alternatively, if you are dealing with a difficult issue and need a mediator or some advice, the mobile is a good way to touch base. 

Peter Raffles