For some people who come to mediation for the first time, either as a client or as someone wanting to train in mediation skills there can be a sense of surprise when they find out that Mediators don’t give advice, suggestions or opinions.
There are many reasons why this is so and I want to outline those reasons below to try to clarify the thinking behind mediation practice and why it is perhaps a radically different approach to supporting people with their difficult situations.
So to establish what it is we don’t do I’ll take the following examples of suggestions and advice and opinions to be what I am referring to:
Suggestions: I’ll take this to mean the introduction of our own ideas about how a situation can be responded to rather than the mediation participant’s ideas, for example:
“Have you tried speaking to your neighbour/work colleague/sister?”
“Would it be a good idea to move your room around so that the loudspeakers are in another corner of the room” (in a noise dispute for example)
Advice: I’ll take this to be a ‘direction’ we give to a mediation participant about how they should go about things as if it is a form of ‘official information’. For example:
“You obviously need soundproofing in this situation.”
“You would need to go to the Environmental Health Department about that.”
“I think it would be good if we all focused on this issue” (A Mediator would ask which issue the participants would like to focus on, not try to ‘steer’ a conversation in this way)
“Harry, I think that’s a great suggestion.”
“Well it looks to me like you’ve both come to an impasse on this.”
Whether advice or suggestions, or giving opinions these fundamentally undermine the purpose of our role and our effectiveness for a variety of reasons:
If we have an initial meeting separately with a mediation participant and we make a suggestion or give advice there are two main ways in which this can go that are contrary to our role:
1. The person may think we are incredibly clever and obviously experts at our jobs and think our idea is great! This is a bad thing because:
a) The participant is then quite likely to sit back and passively await our other ideas for ways of dealing with the situation. Quite possibly, if they believe the other person in the situation may not like the idea then it can lead them to think we are effectively ‘on their side’ and creating ideas together that go ‘against’ the other person. We can’t know if the other person will think that about the idea but that’s not the point, the participant we are with feels we now ‘agree’ with them, and are siding with them because we ‘understand and agree even if the other person doesn’t’.
b) the consequences of our ‘great idea’ may be that we then get asked for any other ‘great ideas’ we might have for other issues and while our egos may enjoy this admiration the gradual dependence on us for ‘solutions’ continues until one of our ‘great ideas’ don’t work and we are then seen as liable for the negative consequences of our ideas because ‘Well aren’t you supposed to be the experts in this?’. This would be a misunderstanding of our role but one we have created because of our straying into giving advice and suggestions.
c) The consequences of our ‘great idea’ may be that it doesn’t work out at all in practice and so the participant reaches point b) much sooner.
2. The second way in which suggestions or advice can go are the other possible outcome to giving them – that the idea is thought to be a mad/bad/ridiculous idea:
a) when this happens it is very easy for the participant to feel we have sided against them because ‘that’s the kind of stupid idea he/she (other participant) would come up with – are you two in cahoots on this? I’ve explained why that’s not possible so many times and here you are – mediation ‘expert’ coming up with that ridiculous suggestion’
b) When this occurs it also means that the participant loses confidence in the mediator and the mediation process because they may think that if we are making such bad suggestions to them we are probably doing the same when we meet the other participant. Through this the participant starts to feel a loss of control of what is happening in the situation and now has not just the other participant to worry about but the mediator as well! That sense of loss of control can be a major factor in participants becoming resistant and possibly even antagonistic or aggressive in a situation.
If advice or suggestions or opinions are given in a Joint Mediation Meeting with both / all participants present, then the same issues arise but now the sense of partiality has even more impact. If one party thinks that a suggestion is a great idea and the other that it is a terrible idea then there is immediately a sense of imbalance, almost a ‘ganging up on’ the person who doesn’t like the idea and a sense of isolation for them. Similarly if a Mediator praises an idea by a participant but just brushes past an idea by the other one then a similar sense of polarisation for/against a participant can occur. So we don’t give opinions even to try to ‘encourage’ people, as we may be encouraging an idea that the other participant dislikes and this has a particularly strong impact if we then fail to encourage another participant’s idea either deliberately because we don’t like their idea or unconsciously we fail to ‘encourage it’ because we can’t manage to keep up the constant attempt to ‘encourage’ in an equal way each time. So it is more appropriate and effective not to give a view. Why would we anyway? It is not our dispute and any outcomes of the mediation are for the participants to live-out, not us. Our view is irrelevant.
I often hear stories where mediators say ‘There was an impasse, I couldn’t get A to be reasonable and accept B’s proposal’ or ‘I wanted them to consider….(suggestion/idea/advice) but they didn’t want to go there’. In any such situations the mediator hasn’t recognised their own contribution to the ‘stuckness’ of a mediation by either taking a partial stance where a participant’s ideas were not accepted by the other participant and they have been judged ‘unreasonable’ by the mediator, whether within the meeting or outside of it. Or the mediator has taken the actions described in the section above, in the belief they are ‘helping’ by making a suggestion and instead found a resistance and then decided the parties were at an ‘impasse’ when in fact they just didn’t want to follow the mediator’s directions and weren’t given space to explore their own ideas.
While, in matters of procedure or technical matters such as how to fix an engine, there are often clear and objectively defined ways of dealing with a problem. But in a personal falling-out between two people there is no ‘technical handbook’ or ‘procedure’ to specify the ‘right answer’ in the situation. The right answer has to be created there and then by those involved based on the acknowledgement that presently the interactions and responses are not working. Their infinitely greater expertise in their own experience, thoughts, feelings than someone new to their situation makes them the best-placed people to create that answer.
Sometimes people (including some mediators, sadly) assume that because, to them, it ‘sounds like’ a situation they have been in before that their suggested answer will work for those involved in the situation. That’s like saying that because the technical handbook for a photocopier gave the answer for how to clear a paper blockage the same procedure will work for a shredder when it too has a paper blockage. Because the ‘internal workings’ are different in both, one cannot answer the issue for the other. Similarly the internal workings of any two individuals will not be the same and so the answer for one, can’t be assumed to be the same for the other.
How Advice and Suggestions Detract from Supporting Empowerment (one of the main Underlying Philosophies of Mediation):
1. If a participant is finding it hard to ‘cope’ with a situation and as mediators we try to rescue them by giving advice or suggestions because we think they ‘need’ it, this further increases their reliance on influences other than their own personal capacities. This can perpetuate a sense that there is always someone to ‘sort their problem out’. This will often be a false impression as in many situations of unresolved conflict it will only be those involved that can resolve their situation and there is no ‘official’ guidance which will fix the situation. However, coming from us in our role as Mediator it may falsely appear to be so.
2. We are not trained or authorised to give advice or suggestions unlike advice workers, social workers, lawyers, housing officers, police officers etc. Even if we do carry out that kind of role at other times it is crucial we don’t bring that into our Mediator role as it would undermine the process for the reasons given in this article and cause confusion for the participant(s) in the process.
People often ask whether being a mediator puts us in dangerous situations because of the anger and frustration felt by the parties for whom we are providing mediation in their situation. While not wanting to be complacent about this risk, it is actually extremely unlikely that we, as mediators will be subject to anger and verbal abuse because of our emphasis on not giving advice or making suggestions or giving opinions. I have never had any threat or verbal abuse directed at me in 22 years of mediating, even though I have been in the presence of abusive and threatening actions or statements in a range of neighbour, community, family and workplace disputes.
When people are in a frustrated or angry state or feeling other difficult emotions and they feel others are trying to ‘push’ them or force them or even just persuade them to do something they are not comfortable with, then, due to their highly emotional state they are more likely to react against this and the person or people doing it, as if pushing against an invisible wall closing in on them.
This may take the form of verbal abuse, passive disagreement (often described as ‘stubbornness’ by those pushing but telling themselves they are ‘helping’ the person), or even violence. In mediations it can be that people just leave the room rather than any of the above – the mediators can tell themselves many other stories about why this has happened that are ultimately criticisms of the participants before they come to a recognition it could have been because they were making suggestions or giving advice or opinions that didn’t sit well with the person.
By not making suggestions or giving advice or expressing opinions, we are not ‘fencing’ people in. They are given space to explore their thoughts and feelings about a situation in any direction they choose to go, towards what they see as possible resolution. They are not sidetracked, ‘redirected’, ‘guided’, ‘steered’ or at worst ‘pushed’ in any particular direction by us as mediators when we can respond in a way that is not about giving our advice or suggestions or opinions.
This means that as mediators we stay safe, the participants can be creative and not reactive and they also feel safe with us because they see that we are not present to try to impose anything on them or control them.
Resolution does not necessarily mean ‘agreement’
Some mediators do fine in a meeting until it comes to the ‘outcome’ when they still try to ‘push’ people towards creating an ‘agreement’ when that may not be what the participants want. They may be happy with just a verbal agreement or even just to have had a chance to hear each other and understand each other better. The mediator can tell themselves that other factors come into play such as outside influences, that lead them to ‘guide’ or ‘push for’ an agreement (statistics measured by the funding body for example that inappropriately consider ‘agreement’ as the only meaningful outcome of mediation). But these are influences that are not of interest or relevance to the participants and so are not a reason for the mediator to try to impose them or (as they may tell themselves) ‘steer’ them towards. As well as this it is more appropriate to the practice of mediation to trust that the parties know what is best for them.
As mentioned earlier, when mediators don’t give advice, suggestions or opinions in the Initial Meeting held separately with participants beforehand, this means that in a Joint Mediation Meeting participants feel safe that we will not suggest something to the other person any more than we would to them and so they are at ease with what happens in the meeting rather than being ‘on edge’ worrying about what the mediator will come out with that is a suggestion or view that is uncomfortable for them.
Confidentiality – another Underlying Philosophy of Mediation that is easily compromised when a mediator gives advice, suggestions or opinions
If we make suggestions or give advice or opinions it is difficult to be sure that these will not be influenced by confidential information that we know about from meeting with the other mediation participant. As a result our ‘input’ is at risk of indirectly giving away confidential information which we have prior to the meeting guaranteed we will not do.
Alternatively the fact we are giving input may lead a participant to assume that we know something that we are not telling them and they can start to assume it is based on information we are meant to keep as confidential. This creates an unnecessary complication to the process that is avoidable by being disciplined in our approach. Again we see a situation where the use of advice, suggestions or opinions risks undermining the mediation process as well as increasing the complexity of the mediated discussion rather than helping to ‘untangle’ it. Guesswork and ‘reading into’ the views and suggestions expressed by a mediator become part of the process rather than it supporting clear communication directly between the participants involved, unhindered by the ‘tinkering’ of the mediator.
If we keep to our practice of asking open questions which have no ‘agenda’ behind them then we are not drawing on any knowledge we have of the other party, as such questions do not refer to any action, date, place, object etc. that has not already been raised within a discussion by the participants themselves. We ‘walk alongside’ them and help them decide their next steps rather than try to drag them in a direction we feel is ‘best for them’.
Mediation remains a simple, effective and very powerful opportunity for those involved if we, as mediators, don’t complicate the situation by bringing in our advice, opinions and suggestions based on an extremely narrow understanding of the views, values, experiences, thoughts and feelings of those we are working with. To think we, as mediators, can know better than them how to resolve their difficulty based on what will often be no more than a few hours of interaction with them is the height of arrogance and will always detract from rather than assist in resolving a situation, however much we wish to convince ourselves otherwise after our involvement.
I feel saddened and concerned when I hear mediators assume a ‘Parent-Child’ approach to people in a dispute as if, simply because they have a difficulty with each other that means they are ‘incapable’ of resolving it and so ‘need’ the mediator’s input. No one can look in the mirror and say they have not had a falling out with someone else and at the same time that they were never able to resolve such difficulties for and by themselves. Quick fix answers for people in dispute are often more for the benefit of the ‘mediator’ because they are not able to accept that others ‘fall out’, or even sometimes it is to feel able to tell themselves they ‘fixed’ someone else as if it is a ‘good deed’, not recognising it is one of the most damaging things they can do in a situation. It is a suppression of a difficulty rather than a resolution and is rarely, if ever, a sustainable answer to a situation. Instead it is more like putting a lid on a boiling pot in order to pretend it’s not boiling than support for those who have been feeding the fire to stop doing so.
Of course there can still be mediators who say “Ah but the above can’t apply in the situations I mediate as I work with really difficult situations involving violence and abuse.” And of course that is to presume that those aren’t the very kinds of situations I am talking about, nor to recognise that the very difficulties the person has faced in such mediations is simply because they have given their advice and suggestions and opinions and those involved just didn’t want to hear them and wanted and expected to be able to work things out for and by themselves.