How a mediator’s “presence” and embodied experience may be used in service of dispute resolution

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In training to be a mediator we learn skills, techniques, approaches, important aspects of how to handle challenging and entrenched disputes. We take these tools into our mediations and apply them in nuanced fashion to help the parties move on from the conflict that constrains their business, work relationship, child’s well-being (eg SEN Mediation).

However, the more I’ve practiced as a mediator the more I have also become aware of the profoundly important issue of mediator “presence” and “place”. A mediator’s “presence” at a mediation is of central importance in supporting the parties to move on from the dispute. What I want to highlight in this article is how others at a mediation may influence this presence, and how awareness of this dynamic can help the mediation move forward. To say more about this, let’s start by accepting that the mediator has a designated role with particular attributes. At the same time, let’s also consider that the mediator is a participant in a process that is “field dependent”. It is this second point that is central to the issue of presence and place that I want to discuss here.

To elaborate, let me say that in being a subject of the field, the mediator cannot necessarily control how he/she is seen by mediation participants, and that how he/she is seen by mediation participants will inevitably and choicelessly influence the mediator’s presence and approach to the work. This may align with what in psychology would be termed transference and counter-transference. Without going into an extensive description of transference, the implication is that we are all replaying relationships in ways that we are familiar with from our history. So, the mediator’s presence and place is affected by the participants in the mediation, and their relational histories. In such dynamics, techniques will only take you so far. At some stage there is a need to become aware of what you are experiencing as a mediator, your feelings towards the different parties, what this may say about the mediation, and most fundamentally, what this may say about the dispute.

Your feelings and reactions to the parties and the dispute, which could also be framed as what’s happening in the transference, are in many respects your greatest tool to understanding what is happening in the dispute. If you are feeling frustrated in a mediation, where is that frustration coming from? Who or what is it directed towards? What do you imagine is happening for the person or in the specific situation that is the source of your frustration? As you follow this information trail you begin to get under the surface dynamics and understand some of the deeper-rooted issues that underpin the dispute.

For example, you are in a mediation and you’re experiencing a complete lack of energy (have a biscuit might be the first thing to consider!). You notice this lifelessness particularly when talking with “Paul”. Why is this happening? What is going on for you when you talk to Paul? How does Paul appear? What is going on for Paul? Do you consider that he is lacking in energy too? If so, I wonder what he might need? This may lead to the question, “Paul, what do you need right now?”. This may lead to Paul articulating a more fundamental need or interest that can shine a light on what underpins the dispute and can then move the mediation forward.
Being aware of yourself in this way is a skill and requires constant practice. At first it may feel like managing a mediation can be tough at the best of times, without also having to focus on what’s going on for you. Yet, like anything, the more practice that takes place, the better one gets at it. I still often toggle back and forth between what’s going on for me, and where I need to be in the mediation process. As I develop my skills I begin to notice the ability to do both of these things simultaneously.

I imagine there are experienced mediators out there who this comes naturally to, but I hope these thoughts may of help for mediators who from time-to-time may wonder, a) why am I feeling like this? and/or b) what does this mediation need right now, and/or c) how can this mediation move forward?

(Photo by Linus Nylund on Unsplash)

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