She looked at me and after a moment said hesitantly, “Well, I’d rather not say…” It was a reply to a question I often ask in a mediation: “So how would you like things to be in the future?” Thinking she was just being reticent I encouraged her to say more – and she did… “Well what I’d really like is for her to be dead, buried in a coffin with a glass lid so I could check every day that she is still there.” It took us all by surprise and I could hear the voice in my head saying, ‘reframe that one if you can’! Instead my co-mediator and I employed the invaluable technique of silence…
This is an admittedly fairly extreme example from a community mediation I was recently involved in. It highlights that the situations we face when bringing sparring neighbours together can really challenge our mediation skills and offer great opportunities for development. I’m lucky enough to work in workplace mediation through Mediation4 and in community mediation through my local mediation charity. From this perspective, it seems to me that community mediation is the ‘poor relation’ of the mediation world. Commercial mediation is relatively well remunerated and largely the preserve of current / former lawyers, family mediation is a well-established part of the formal divorce processes and workplace has the support of large public and private sector organisations. Yet community mediation struggles on through local charitable mediation services, relying heavily on volunteers. So why should mediators get involved? For me there are 3 reasons.
As my example above shows, community mediation is a great test of your skills as a mediator. You have far more limited time than in commercial or workplace to work with the neighbours, so you have to be strong on process and skilled in picking the right questions. It is also likely that you will encounter more emotion than you do in commercial or workplace and as such you need to be able to spot the signs and be able to manage outbursts of emotion when they occur. As money is tight with those referring cases (normally police, councils, housing associations), we often see neighbours only when the dispute has been going on for quite some time so their positions have become entrenched. Helping them move forward and find ways of living peacefully with each other is a considerable challenge which demands and helps develop a strong mediation skill set.
The mediation training providers continue to train and accredit new mediators but as every new mediator knows, finding work to practice your new skills is a real challenge. I can’t speak for all mediation services but certainly with the one I manage, covering Berkshire and Oxfordshire, we are often stretched in terms of resource. We are always looking to bring new mediators into the team, and if you have already had some training then so much the better – but no matter who you are or what experience you’ve had we’ll always make sure you pass muster before we let you loose on our clients! And don’t assume that it is necessarily all voluntary. Again, I can’t speak for other services but our lead mediators get paid for the cases they take on. You won’t be buying a new Ferrari – or any new car come to that – on what the charity pays but it does at least recognise that skills should be paid for.
The final reason is that there are plenty of despairing neighbours out there who need our help – nearly 1 in 5 encountered a serious problem with their neighbour during one year according to a Halifax survey. The clients I deal with as a workplace mediator can at least go home and escape whatever is causing them grief at work. When the problem is your neighbour you have no escape. Your only option is to resolve the conflict or move house and the latter is obviously an absolute last resort, and also, for many of our social housing clients, not within their control. As mediators we have a chance to help them move past this enormous pain in their lives. For me at least there is a great personal satisfaction knowing that your skills and effort have helped someone go home from the mediation with a way forward and a lot less stress than when they arrived. Call it what you like, Social Responsibility, Social Conscience or simply making someone’s life a bit better – if we can use our skills to do this then why wouldn’t we?
What I’m saying is..
If you are interested in finding out more about what community mediation services operate near you then you will need to rely on Google (or other reputable search engines!). I haven’t yet come across an up to date list of all local services (the former national body Mediation UK had to close down in 2007 due to lack of funding). If you are interested in the Berkshire and Oxfordshire area then contact me – we are currently looking to do ‘cross training’ for trained mediators in February 2015 and have places available.
What happened with the woman who wanted the other one dead? What she said was actually quite helpful as having said it out loud and in front of her neighbour she seemed to recognise how ridiculous it was to say something so extreme simply because the other lady’s dog wouldn’t stop barking. We got them talking and they walked away with a solid agreement.
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