This may seem like an odd question. My background in the oil and gas industry must be an advantage when I’m mediating in that sector, mustn’t it? It certainly helps when marketing my services – I’ve got the contacts, the market knowledge, the credibility from what a 25 year career. But does it make for a more effective mediator?
In the world of commercial mediation, lawyers referring cases will often look for someone who has experience with similar cases – hence you see mediators who specialise in areas such as personal injury claims or property disputes etc. The advantage is that the mediator understands the issues more quickly and feels more comfortable when reality testing the solution options proposed.
So does the same apply in workplace mediation? For commercial mediations, whilst relationships play a part in commercial mediation, at the core of the dispute is a commercial issue which needs to be resolved. For workplace situations it is very often an interpersonal issue causing the conflict and resolution is about enabling the participants to work together effectively in the future. As such, there is a strong argument that industry knowledge is irrelevant – it is the skills and experience in facilitating resolution of interpersonal conflict that matter.
Having said that I do believe that industry experience and knowledge add value. For me there are three key advantages:
These three factors are certainly benefits but what about the risks of having industry knowledge? There is a danger that the mediator makes assumptions based on knowledge unrelated to the situation. Not only could this potentially lead to incorrect conclusions but it could also jeopardise impartiality. You may for instance favour one person’s proposed solution because you have had personal experience of a similar solution which worked before. So it is a risk – but is it significantly more serious than the constant challenge we have as mediators to avoid being judgemental? Whatever situation we face, our brain naturally tries to analyse based on whatever experience we might have. So when we have industry knowledge it just makes avoiding making assumptions that bit harder. One strategy I like to remember is ‘Be the Cow’. It comes from a very amusing TedX talk1 by Brad Heckman (CEO New York Peace Institute) and simply means the mediator is to ‘act dumb’ – assume you know nothing even if you think you know something. It’s a bit tough on cows but is a great tip.
So what’s the conclusion? Having industry knowledge brings with it the additional risk of making assumptions but for me it certainly has benefits for both myself and my clients. Far more important than my specific industry understanding is my skill and experience as an effective mediator. Industry experience may help me access clients but my mediation skills help me keep them.
1 - Brad Heckman: ‘Mediation and Mindfully Getting in the Middle’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UUVmPVKaJzk
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