One of my favourite books is the 1920s classic, “England Their England” by AG Macdonnell. The chief character is the innocent abroad, Donald, a young Scotsman who under the terms of his father’s will is exiled from his homeland and moves to London. He decides to embark on a literary career and is commissioned by a Welsh publisher to write a book about the English.
Amongst the many colourful characters he encounters is an amiable, died in the wool imperialist, Sir Henry, who is also the prospective Conservative candidate for a parliamentary by election somewhere in the East of England. Donald takes up a short term employment as Sir Henry’s private secretary and accompanies him to a public meeting being held in an area of strong socialist sympathy. During the meeting Sir Henry is asked by a fierce looking young man in a red scarf to outline his views on housing.
Without even pausing to draw breath, Sir Henry replies stating that roughly speaking, his view is that the government should build as many houses as quickly as possible and as cheaply as possible. Donald is unimpressed and anticipates that the response from the questioner and perhaps the assembled throng will be less than favourable. However, the young man simply says “thank you” and sits down, apparently quite satisfied.
The joy of this excerpt is Macdonnell’s lovely prose but does it remind you of anything? It seems to me that Sir Henry’s rather pathetic speech is all too reminiscent of the way in which public institutions in most if not all countries go about decision-making. The same is true of businesses, public and private/commercial corporations, educational institutions, sporting bodies and charities of all sizes and outlooks. All too often decisions are made in the heat of the moment and only short-term economic or political requirements are taken into account. All too often what seemed like “a good idea at the time” turns into a long term or even a short term disaster. Equally, public consultation exercises are often little more than window dressing. Contributions made by people who may be very well placed to comment are ignored or denigrated with the people affected seemingly accepting their fate without much more than a murmur.
The types of organisation referred to above do not have the monopoly on rudimentary decision making processes. Often, individuals including those who really ought to know better are guilty of making short sighted, ill conceived decisions that later on they come to rue. In all walks of life, crude decision making results in conflict in the family home as well as in the boardroom or governmental chamber, and in some instances, the battlefield.
In a mediation where ill-conceived decision making has resulted in conflict, the mediator has to ensure that he/she does not dwell too much on the past and that the parties move forward and try and settle their differences. In much the same way that a tailor will have to remove a defective zip in a pair of trousers in order to install a working replacement, the mediator will always ensure that the underlying difficulties are identified and that he or she acknowledges how one or more of the disputing parties may have been affected.
As well as helping the parties to move forward, in the course of facilitating, listening, engaging, empathising, reality checking and also demonstrating curiosity and asking the right questions, a mediator helps the parties to understand what has led them to where they currently are, if where they had no control over what has been done and cannot rectify. In so doing the mediator demonstrates a genuine understanding of any relevant subjective or objective political, social, economic, cultural or religious considerations.
Unlike decision making or for that matter litigation, mediation is not a heat of the moment or corner cutting process. Disputing parties who may be suffering from the effects of a poorly made decision will have the opportunity to explore matters themselves and better understand them. They will not be encouraged to dwell on or wallow in past injustices but they will be encouraged to appraise all the relevant issues objectively and to explore how best they can move forward. Given that in many instances, mediation works alongside, but ultimately outside, the traditional legal and decision-making processes, unpicking is one of the many valuable skills that the family, civil, community or indeed criminal mediator has to offer. In fact often, “unpicking” is very much the name of the game.
Principal Director of ASM PLUS, civil/commercial, workplace, employment, family and educational mediator and trainer with a judicial/legal background. He has knowledge and expertise in dispute resolution in a wide range of areas and disciplines and mediates online.