Underlying Philosophies of Mediation: Philosophy 6 – Adult-Adult not Parent-Child

The last in this series on the Underlying Philosophies of Mediation is one of the most challenging aspects of the process and in  many ways the one least adhered to: the expectation that we have an adult-adult not parent-child relationship with the participants in the mediation process.

This distinction between an Adult-Adult and Parent-Child relationship with the participants is  a metaphor – some parents relate to their children in a very Adult-Adult way (see below). The main point is that in the relationship there is not an expected dependency by the participants on the mediator for their needs to be met, for the outcome they are wanting and for their dispute to be resolved. They can of course expect a professional service from the mediator but the mediator cannot ever ‘guarantee’ resolution as this can only be created by those involved, with, or without the assistance of the mediator.

Here’s an example of a parent taking an adult-adult approach to a difficulty between her children:

After reading the Rescuer Syndrome section of your website I was inspired to try Byron Katie’s approach to her son’s arguing (see Rescuer Syndrome link).Two of my sons age 10 and 3 argue some of the time and I always end up somewhere in the middle and nearly always being the bad guy to either one or both. It’s impossible to please both and if you punish one it is bound to be the wrong one (in their eyes).So the day I read your site as if on cue the boys had a big row. I took a massive step back and ignored the pleas from both to intervene and tell the other off.I just looked on to see where this would lead. My youngest son, who generally comes off worse as he is not as physically or verbally able as the older,showed his frustration by tearing up a picture of his brother saying “this is what I think of you”. At this point the argument seemed to fizzle out and ended up with older son explaining to younger how by tearing up his picture he had hurt his feelings and then asked him “How would you like it if I tore up a picture of you?” Younger son said that “It would make me feel sad”. With that their argument was settled and they went off together and played happily for the rest of the afternoon.

I was absolutely amazed. They had argued, sorted out the argument with older son explaining his feelings to younger and I stayed in everyone’s good books.

I call that a result. Sending you thanks

KC – Wolverhampton, UK

Any mediator who suggests  their role is to be the provider of the resolution is likely to use highly directive practices to ensure an apparent outcome is created and as a result it is unlikely that any supposed resolution, whether in the form of agreement or otherwise, will be sustainable.

This philosophy is particularly consistent with the Underlying Philosophies of Ownership – in that there is an expectation that clients take responsibility for resolution of their difficulty and a belief they have the capacity to do so – and Empowerment -in that the client is supported in creating their own answers to their difficulty and these are not provided for them nor is it believed to be possible that the answers can be provided for them. In many situations mediators can feel that they do actually know the best answer for the participants in a dispute and so use ‘leading questions’ or make suggestions and give advice that try to lead to their view of the ‘best answer’. This is where a Parent-Child approach has been taken by the mediator and is particularly inappropriate in supporting others in resolving their conflict as it is a manifestation of the Rescuer SyndromeThe belief that we know better than someone else how to resolve their conflict, or are somehow better equipped to do so, leads us to intervene or try to ‘rescue’ them in a way which inhibits their opportunity to resolve it themselves.

When we have a broken washing machine or a problem with our car we call in an expert to fix it for us. The repair is made on a machine that works in the same way on all occasions, indeed it is designed to do so. Human interactions do not arise from machines and so there is not a consistency in the way each individual ‘works’ and so there is not someone who can be called in to ‘fix’ them. Because of this the only true expert in how to ‘fix’ our relationships, whether personal or professional,  is ourselves.

As Mediators we will not be able to understand even a fraction of how others see the world and interpret it on the basis of a short discussion with them about their difficulty and so to assume we could know how to fix their broken relationships or communication breakdowns comes from a place of arrogance, a belief that others are dependent on us for their happiness and their effectiveness in how they behave in the world. This can often manifest in mediators saying ‘I resolved their dispute’ rather than ‘I helped some people to resolve their dispute’. As a mediator I never resolve anyone else’s dispute, I can only help them to resolve it themselves. Nor do I carry an expectation that it is my role to resolve others’ disputes – it is their dispute and ultimately only they can resolve it. I will do my utmost to support them in that within my role as a mediator but I will never be able, nor will I try, to ‘fix’ it for them.

Unfortunately there are many manifestations of mediation being used in a way that does not apply this philosophy within the structural aspects in which it is provided:

  • Agency officers who assess and decide for potential participants in mediation whether, they, or their situation is ‘suitable’ for mediation. This is what leads to the common statement by people who have  mediation ‘If only we’d known about this sooner‘. The availability of mediation, in an adult-adult context, is one in which potential users are informed about it as early as possible or just know it is available anyway, and it is they who decide whether it is suitable, potentially at a much earlier time than that at which the ultimate ‘referrer’ does. On this basis self-referral for mediation has to be available for it to fulfil the purpose of this philosophy.
  • Worse still MEDIATORS who ‘assess’ whether mediation is suitable for the parties, immediately taking a ‘parent-child’ view of the potential participants as if they can possibly know whether mediation is something the participants will want or will benefit from. My only requirement with regard to whether mediation is appropriate or not for one or more people is if they decide that they want it. From that point on it is appropriate because they have decided, they have ownership of their involvement in the process until such time as they decide they no longer want it. Where it is not the case that individuals decide for themselves the suitability of mediation, it is another example of where the potential impact of the process is diluted as participants have already lost a sense of involvement in the process and are basically told ‘what’s good for them’ and whether they are ‘allowed’ to have it or not. We see this being used within many areas in which mediation is now being formally integrated into institutional structures such as within separation mediation or ‘Family’ Mediation as it is often called. If, for example, someone feels as if they are a victim of domestic violence they don’t need someone else to decide for them if they should or should not participate in mediation, it is up to them if they want to take part or not. If, indeed they have a concern and the mediator decides it isn’t valid then it is an abuse of the whole point of the mediation process – that the process and its outcomes are self-directed and support self-determination. Conversely if a ‘mediator’ decides for someone that they are not ‘suitable’ for mediation but they would like to have it, it again undermines the whole point of the mediation process. Sadly such practices are already becoming the norm within many applications of mediation and so its root aim is essentially lost. Not surprisingly there are question marks being raised over its effectiveness in such areas.
  • Within the same areas there are more and more moves towards justifying a compulsion to mediate (Listen to me sonny/lassie, I know what’s best for you) – again undermining the original philosophy of ownership and, therefore, the possibility that participants are creating a ‘good faith’ and therefore sustainable resolution. Instead they are often having to just turn up and go through the motions for the sake of the procedures imposed on them. Again, not surprisingly there are question marks over the effectiveness of mediation in such areas but often the ‘failure’ is attributed to the participants rather than the inappropriate application of the process in a way that contradicts itself. Within workplaces, if employees are ‘sent’ for mediation and have not voluntarily put themselves forward for it, it leads to an ineffective system and ultimately a low return on investment. When the process is compulsory there is little need to explain to participants what mediation is as they are going to have it anyway. As a result  participants are often frightened, resistant and confused by the process  before it has even begun. (This can be seen on many ‘google alerts’ for the keyword ‘mediation’ – I receive weekly lists from google of new postings on the internet that have this keyword within their content and almost every week there will be a bulletin board discussion from areas such as Special Educational Needs complaints and Divorce discussions where people are concerned and upset at the thought of having mediation and rarely seem to have had the process explained to them, they’ve just been ‘assessed’ and ‘sent’ for it. )
  • A further area in which Mediators and mediation organisations, sometimes alongside the organisation commissioning them, adopt more of a Parent-Child approach to those they work with is where they go in with an agenda that ‘agreement‘ (sometimes called ‘settlement’) is the required outcome. (Let’s all agree shall we!) Even some definitions of mediation assume this: ACAS and CIPD define mediation as a process ‘where an impartial third party, the mediator, helps two or more people in dispute to attempt to reach an agreement‘. This assumption and any training, systems, procedures etc. that follow from it also take the decision making out of the hands of the participants with regard to what they see as a way forward and leads to many mediators ‘pushing’ for agreement when that may not be what participants feel is necessary or would resolve their difficulty. In this sense the mediator is still deciding for participants ‘what’s best’ for them rather than trusting that, as adults, they can decide this for themselves and work it out themselves. Additionally, if mediators do not question this then they find themselves pushing for agreements as an indication of ‘success’. This prevents a mediated meeting from following the path wanted by the participants and instead is ‘steered’ towards an agreement by the mediator.

Some examples……..

An excellent Research Paper ‘Workplace Mediation: the participant experience‘ produced for ACAS by Saundry, Bennett, and Wibberley describes the experience of 25 individuals who had mediation within their work environment. Many of the features described above are illustrated within the findings of this document, however I believe strongly based on my own experiences of different areas of mediation that similar findings that indicate a more ‘parent-child’ approach to those in dispute than an ‘adult-adult’ one would be found within many areas of mediation and particularly strongly within Family Mediation and more and more within areas such as Special Educational Needs mediation (click link for new draft provision that will, if carried through, make mediation compulsory when a parent wishes to appeal about decisions made about their child’s special education provision)  where it is being ‘regulated-in’  as a required step within an established adversarial system rather than as a separate, genuinely alternative approach to resolving disputes, complaints and relationship breakdowns.

Facilitative or Directive? 

The predominant approach which is claimed to exist within the mediation field, that of ‘facilitative’ mediation is anything but that when the level of directiveness and lack of self-determination is observed when taking an overview of the structures and procedures within which mediation is often provided, rather than limiting the observation to  practices within the mediation meeting itself. Such external factors tend to be ignored when claims are made that mediation is a process underpinned by a philosophy of self-determination. Self-determination, characterised particularly by the ownership and empowerment philosophies of mediation described previously has to be present in the journey to mediation as well as at the point at which the practitioner provides it and it is incumbent on the practitioner to ensure this is so through challenging practices and procedures that inhibit that, through educating organisations and individuals about the reasons why it contradicts the ethos and intention of mediation and ultimately means the full benefits, including the return on resource investment, will not be achieved.

CAOTICA is the Official Blog of
CAOS Conflict Management

Leave a Reply