At a recent networking event I was asked the standard question at this type of event ‘so what do you do?’. Whenever I answer this I always mention my community mediation work in addition to talking about workplace mediation and training. It often triggers interest as people frequently have their own experiences of neighbour issues or know of friends or relatives who have had problems. On this occasion the person I was talking to said something along the lines of ‘wow, it must be very different doing a neighbour mediation compared to a workplace one’. My instinctive response was that actually they are quite similar and now that I've thought about it a little more I still agree with my initial reaction!
On the face of it you might think the situations are very different. There certainly are some key differences but I think the similarities outweigh these. So how are they similar?
They principal point for me is that in both cases we are helping the participants find a way forward which enables them to continue the relationship in a way that is better for them both. This is fundamentally different to some other forms of mediation – such as family and commercial – where normally the outcome is separation. The relationship is over and mediation is used to smooth the parting.
In both workplace and community mediation there might be a lot of symptoms which are presented as the issues and on the face of it these are different for employees and neighbours. In workplace cases you typically deal with accusations of bullying, whilst for neighbours it is often about noise, parking or general anti-social behaviour. But beneath these surface issues and at the heart of all the conflicts there will be a breakdown in the relationship. As such, the approach in addressing the conflict is similar in both areas. We help the participants to uncover for themselves what has gone wrong, to re-establish communication and find mutually agreeable options to rebuild the relationship. Even if the process differs, the skills we apply are also the same, particularly listening, questioning and building rapport.
One other area where the two are similar is the external ‘push’ to mediate. Of course, mediation is a voluntary process and as mediators we make it clear we are not forcing anyone into the process. To be a little controversial for moment though – how voluntary is it really for employees and housing tenants? If your manager has made it clear that he/she thinks it would be a good idea to mediate your issue with another employee, or your Housing Officer has stressed that mediation is strongly recommended, how willing would you be to refuse? In both situations there is something major at risk – your job and your home. So my suggestion is that for both workplace and community there is a strong external pressure to mediate – which is not necessarily a bad thing!
There are however some significant differences between workplace and community mediation. The two that are most obvious to me are the process and the environment. Let me explain what I mean by environment. Whilst in both scenarios we are addressing strong emotions, in the workplace we are still within a professional working environment which has accepted norms of behaviour. For instance I’ve never had anyone storm out of a workplace mediation but this does happen in neighbour mediations where that sense of moderating behaviour for the work environment is missing. Consequently the interaction can get more intense and heated.
In terms of process, the simple economics mean that neighbour mediations are much shorter – funding to pay community mediation is extremely difficult to find. We generally have only 2 hours to do what we normally allow a day for in workplace mediation. The skills of the mediator are therefore critical and that’s why I believe every mediator should do community mediation. Apart from providing an invaluable community service, it is a superb way to develop and refine your mediation skills.
So yes there are some differences but for me the similarities are much stronger. In the end we are helping people to overcome the issues they have had and focus on finding a way forward where they work or live without the stress and pain of conflict.
If you are interested in finding out more about community mediation Marc works with Resolve which is the mediation charity covering Berkshire and Oxfordshire. Resolve can be contacted at email@example.com and via www.resolvemediation.com. For other areas Google ‘community mediation in X’ to see if you have a similar local service.
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