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Industry knowledge

Help or Hindrance for a Workplace Mediator?

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:

Saves time. It simply helps to ‘speak the lingo’. In the oil and gas industry for example the list of technical terms and acronyms is endless. Do I really need to know when helping two gas production managers resolve a personality clash that the Christmas Tree they are referring to is probably more likely to be the collection of valves and fittings at the top of a well rather than the tinsel and bauble garlanded evergreen variety? Probably not, but it does help. I don’t have to ask them to explain themselves. And it is not just the terminology. I will understand the culture in which they work, they type of organisation structure, the issues faced which are typical in that sector. As such I save time by focusing my questions on understanding their relationship without first having to understand the situation.

  • Effective reality testing. A question I like to ask participants when meeting them on their own is what do they see happening if they don’t resolve the situation today. An answer I often hear is ‘I suppose I’ll just leave and get another job’ which naturally leads to some reality testing about how realistic that might be. A response along these lines was given to me recently by a client who was in a highly paid, very specialised technical role in an oil and gas company. Knowing the sector I was aware that he would probably walk into another job easily and there would be a major cost to the company in terms of losing his expertise and finding a replacement. In negotiating terms he had a strong BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) so I shifted my focus to exploring the positives that would arise from resolving the issue. So understanding the background context and industry drivers and certainly help in ensuring effective reality testing.

  • Building trust and rapport. For me, by far the biggest advantage of having industry experience and knowledge is in helping deliver one of the most important critical success factors for mediators, namely building good trust and rapport with the participants. Even before they have met you, your background will start building credibility with the participants. When you meet, the ‘small talk’ doesn’t have to be limited to the weather or football but can relate to industry developments. The nervous, pipeline integrity engineer may struggle to relate to my bemoaning the latest Reading FC results but when we start talking about the use of high density polyethylene pipe in Egyptian distribution systems, we’re really starting to bond!

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 talk* 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.

*Brad Heckman: ‘Mediation and Mindfully Getting in the Middle’


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