Mediation is likely to be offered as a response to the tensions and injustice in the world after the tragic death of George Floyd. This is a time for education, dialogue and connection, and also for campaigning and activism. It is a time for responsibility taking by white people and for active support of equality, diversity and inclusion.
The difficulty with mediation is that it offers benefits and carries risks. Mediation promises many useful things such as facilitating understanding and crafting practical solutions to complex issues. It is a process which offers or claims a level playing field. This is a naive and misguided claim. This is where the risks begin for people of colour who choose to participate in mediation. For organisations using mediation to address issues of prejudice and discrimination the risks are subtle and complex.
We are passionate about justice, diversity and conflict resolution. This is a somewhat angry article as it critiques the mediation profession; highlighting the uses and abuses of mediation. These are uses and abuses relayed to us from from clients we now work with, based on their previous experiences of mediation. Mediation can be used to sanitise emotions and suppress difficult issues; so please excuse our tone here as it conveys a more campaigning stance.
Mediator’s Skills for Diversity, Prejudice and Discrimination
Many mediation trainings, particularly 5 day courses or shorter, simply do not have sufficient time to safely cover how to mediate issues of difference, prejudice and discrimination.
The vast majority of UK mediators are dangerously unskilled when it comes to mediating such issues. Fortunately there are a few committed individuals and organisations who place equality, diversity and inclusion at the heart of their practice and values.
Mediation is an informal justice process and has always been a broader, deeper alternative to law. A decision on right and wrong at law is a narrow vehicle for problem solving, learning and a felt sense of justice. Mediation’s capacity to address a much broader range of issues and emotions leads to powerful outcomes which can offer a much greater depth of satisfaction. Formal process eg: grievance/disciplinary can limit and polarise issues, whereas mediation often reframes issues at a more relevant and powerful interpersonal level.
One of the main threats to mediation is that it is slowly becoming legalised. Mediators from formal mediation sectors, which are close to law, such as civil & commercial mediation and family mediation (divorce & separation), have moved their mediation models into informal mediation contexts e.g.: workplace and community. The context and operating model for commercial/family mediation is where the relationship is ending. The feedback we have is that this approach leads to outcomes where people exit the business and the negotiation is around costs. This is an alarming mis-selling of workplace mediation. Workplace mediation is about supporting, sustaining and strengthening on-going relationships.
In short, formal or legal mediators offer what is called dispute resolution or dispute settlement. These approaches are not designed to address or resolve relationship conflict. They are outcome driven processes focused on concrete, practical or financial matters. These are compromise models and do not fit with social justice issues. Applying commercial settlement models to matters of identity and difference in a relationship context risks victimisation, abuse and harm. What is needed are conflict resolution processes which are focused on relationship and human elements, generating value for all involved.
Is Mediation Suitable for Diversity, Prejudice and Discrimination
Mediation is a process for getting interests and needs met through dialogue. Individuals should not be negotiating their rights through an informal justice process such as mediation. Any negotiation on rights based issues should be supported with advice and guidance or direction to seek legal advice prior to finally committing to any agreement. Advice and support on your rights is essential prior to considering mediation on issues of prejudice and discrimination. The risk here is that the informality of mediation can be used to suppress or cover up difficult or sensitive issues. Mediation can often give a much greater sense of satisfaction, learning and justice than the narrow focus of disciplinary and grievance.
Can Mediation Help?
Mediation focuses on relationships, behaviour and communication. It helps people communicate, problem-solve and negotiate on interests and needs. This includes working with emotions, perceptions and thinking. There is scope and potential for dialogue, exchange of information, education, understanding, connection, recognition, apology and healing. However all these elements are open to subtle forms of manipulation and abuse which can leave people of colour feeling re-victimised. For a safe process, it requires mediators with a specific set of skills, values, experiences and principles. Where this is present there are a broad range of personal, professional, health and organisational benefits both for individuals and the culture of the organisation.
Mediation offers a great deal of potential and promise. As well as understanding, connection and compassion it can also be a process for apology, taking responsibility and demonstrating accountability. Organisations can demonstrate taking responsibility by ensuring interpersonal mediation is used along side actions which achieve change at a structural level. Be wary of mediation being the only option or action taken around issues of prejudice or discrimination. This unfairly and unjustly loads an individual, potentially a victim, with responsibility when the organisation and all stakeholders should be shouldering the bulk of that responsibility.
The Problem with Mediators
Mediators are well intentioned; they are keen to resolve and can often feel uncomfortable if unable to secure a resolution. For some mediators this means a resolution must be achieved at any cost. A failed mediation can stop referrals, damage reputation, and limit income. Mediators can also be a highly privileged group of people. Privilege blinds us to difference, inequality and injustice. Working on this area requires a life time’s commitment. No doubt there will be a rush for 1 day courses on diversity for mediators. This is condescending and misleads both mediators and consumers. The experience, qualities and self-awareness required to work effectively with issues of difference comes from a value base that has been exercised throughout an individual’s personal and professional life. It is not remedied by a short course.
Which Product are you Buying?
A resolution can be a great relief, a powerful transformative journey. It can change perceptions and attitudes, it can give people a voice, it can help people say and hear things for the first time. It can enable and empower.
Many mediators talk of win-win resolution. Very few understand what this means. If you are offered dispute resolution or dispute settlement, then these are not win-win processes. Commercial bargaining and compromise are not well matched to issues of prejudice, discrimination, equality and diversity.
Confused and Cautious
The mediation marketplace is already confusing and misleading. When it comes to sensitive or complex issues this is more so. See our News section for advice on mediation and sexual harassment. During Weinstein, Me-Too and the Houses of Parliament events around sexual harassment and rape, there was shameless bandwagoning from within the mediation world in a rush to supposedly ‘help’ women and access this new ‘market.’ The real tragedy of this was that it was blindly well intended.
Finding a workplace mediator with a relevant skill and experience base can be difficult. We want you to be informed and confident, either as a participant in mediation, a commissioner of services or a consumer of mediation. Get in touch for advice and guidance, free and confidential; we can point you to the right providers for your concern. We can provide insights, information and resources to help make safe and healthy choices. We now offer a range of courses on Conversations around Race and Difference as well as advice on options for individual coaching, interpersonal tensions and collaborative processes for organisational change.
As a white-owned business we are interested in collaborating with Black-owned businesses to share our expertise, contacts and insights to develop skills, capacity and services in this area. Please get in touch. For example – Training – Conversations on Race and Difference.