Guest blogger, Angie Gaspar, runs a comprehensive staff support service for Healthcare professionals in the NHS, UK. Services include time-limited therapy, mediation, responses to traumatic incidents, stress management, group facilitation and bespoke communication training. She has over 30 years experience in healthcare, community social work and development and mental health services in the public and voluntary sectors. She completed a master’s degree in Work-Based Learning and Mediation from Queen’s University, Belfast in 2013. Most recently she has moved her mediation service from a facilitative model to the Transformative Model.
I work in a large NHS Trust in the UK. There are 10,000 staff and 3 major Hospital sites. I am the Head of the Staff Counselling, Stress Management and Conflict Resolution Service. The main service activity is time-limited therapy and we practice with an integrative humanistic model. Mediation constitutes a small percentage (15%) of the overall clinical work, and is an increasingly important aspect of the service as more conflicts arise in an environment with frequent organisational change. I deliver the Mediation Service with a paid staff team and a group of twenty internal mediators, who are Trust staff, coming from a wide range of professional groups. Our original training was in the Facilitative model. We re-trained with Professor Joseph Folger in October 2013, following a Master Class (2012) where the team were introduced to the Transformative Model (TM) and agreed that we should transform for a variety of reasons!
In 2012 I was in the second year of a master’s programme at Queen’s University, Belfast: Work-based Learning and Mediation. I discovered that there were other models of mediation! Through case discussions we had observed that many people coming to workplace mediation exhibited behaviours which indicated high levels of physical and psychological arousal. The team’s emerging experience was that when encountering ‘high conflict behaviours’( a term I now see as pathologising), they would become fearful and concerned that they are not equipped or trained to deal with these behaviours and affects; and they were more likely to control the process with their interventions.
The mediation team had all received 5 days of mediator training; the focus was on skills and managing the session. There was little theoretical under-pinning of the model, and no theory input as to the causes and effect of conflict on human behaviour, emotions or physiology. We were taught to control ‘high conflict behaviours’ in a number of ways and became increasingly concerned that the key principles of mediation: that of party self-determination, mediator neutrality and the ethic ‘first do no harm’ were being compromised.
The team decision was made to move the practice model to TM because it gave a practice methodology that was congruent with the theoretical base. Funding was secured to enable Joe Folger to return to the Trust to undertake advanced training for the current team and provide training for a new cohort of mediators. In the meantime we prepared for this transition by re-writing all service leaflets, amending service information on the intranet and producing core-skills materials which were debated and discussed and put into action with continuous cycles of reflection as we continued to practice. I took a lead mediator role in the first ten cases referred, observed by my colleagues, as I struggled to learn the new model and undo the old.
The central theme of the Master Class was that the model upheld the principle of party self-determination. A video-tape of a live mediation session (What the Parents Know: A Transformative Mediation, 2011) was used to illustrate the core model and was a powerful illustration of the theory ‘in action’. It also demonstrated the qualities, style and belief system of the mediator, particularly during the interview with Professor Joseph Folger and Judy Saul at the end of the live session. My first person research and action inquiry gave me a holistic approach in examining my own practice and to test the interpretations and assumptions that I held. I felt that this would enable me to experience the difficulties in the practice shift; thereby increasing my understanding of the challenges which might face the service and team members.
The starting point was looking back at my ‘old’ way of working and where the process did not fit with TM. The challenge was to move from being in control of the process to inviting the parties ‘to shape the process as well as the outcome’ (Beal and Saul 2001, p.12): illustrated with several examples.
As preparation for the joint meeting I would inform the parties that they should prepare an opening statement for beginning of the joint session: ‘ten minutes of uninterrupted time’. In this they would outline their story, how the conflict had impacted on them and what they wanted to achieve from the mediation; and I would decide who would go first! I have since discovered a research paper using a single case analysis (Garcia, 2010) which suggests that opening statements may militate against neutrality as they set the interactional path for the parties in a number of ways. The party speaking first might, for example, make so many accusations that it would be hard for the second party ‘hold’ these without acknowledging or responding to what the other party said, whilst attempting to make their own opening statement. To hear a ten minute statement from the first party, without responding, could be seen as an impossible task. Opening statements potentially increased the distress of the parties and set the stage for how the conversation and conflict progressed. I now ask the parties to open the conversation themselves, where and with what they feel important; it sets a relational context, rather than an individualistic and adversarial one, and puts the parties in charge of the process from the onset; assuming agency from the beginning.
Parties were asked if they had any ground-rules that would enable them to have a better conversation, duly written on a flip-chart and added to (by me) if they were felt to be insufficient! This gave a clear message to the parties that I was in control and that they were already ‘getting it wrong’. I would often suggest one ground rule: that they exclude third party information in the conversation: if third party information was included, it could be used unfairly to ‘prove’ one party’s side. With one mediation, using TM (and no third party ground rule, or indeed any ground-rules), one party brought in the observation and accusation that not only did she experience the other party as negative and aggressive, but that her colleagues had also experienced her similarly in meetings. When reflected this became the most pivotal moment of the mediation: the other party became extremely distressed saying that she had become all that she had been accused of and that she hated who she had become. In a deeply moving moment the other party recognised this and apologised for how she had contributed to her level of anger and distress, pointing out that the conflict had also made her behave in ways that she found abhorrent. I now trust that the parties will bring in material that is pertinent to their conflict and that this should not be filtered or excluded.
Taught to reflect the party differences, rather than the commonalities, these were put on a flipchart to form the basis for an ‘agenda’ which the parties would discuss in the final third of the mediation. This shaped not only the process but the time-frame of three hours for the mediation, and inherently moved the conversation towards the prize of making written agreements. This emphasis was a way of maintaining a positive focus rather than reflecting the depth of the difference between the parties. It may have been a way of stopping the conflict from ‘escalating’, but ultimately influenced the direction and outcomes of the mediation.
Our training had emphasised the importance of reframing the hurtful accusations and language of the parties in order to make it palatable to the other party. These reframed words were also a technique that relayed information from one party to another. I now directly and accurately reflect the content of one party directly to that party. The mediator does not become either parties’ ‘voice’ which could be interpreted as a judgement about language used or the ability of the other party to interact with what was said. I now ‘check-in’ with the parties if either exhibits discomfort, fear or the symptoms of high physiological arousal to ascertain if they want to continue as they are, if they want to take a break or have separate meetings. Parties take the initiative and this increases their strength and confidence in the interaction with the other person.
It was emphasised that written agreements were important for the parties as a record that they could return to if the relationship was not working. The written agreements never contained the issues that the parties fundamentally disagreed on, they represented the commonalities: reflecting my interventions in the session. Whilst this is not a criticism of written agreements, what I have noticed since practicing TM that when parties really understand each other’s perspectives, even if they do not agree, the depth of relational understanding means that they do not take the option of writing their ‘agreements’ down. They inhabited and were in charge of the new information, which necessarily changed their future relationship in a number of ways, not only behaviourally.
Following and staying with the conflict dynamic, produced the unexpected result that mediations no longer took three hours and in most cases this time was halved. I discovered that presence, or the ability to ‘be with’ the conflict dynamic, is a very important quality for the mediator. Additional learning was that this can be a very intense and exhausting process and has implications for mediator support.
During this period I underwent a paradigm shift in the way that I viewed conflict, this occurred for three reasons:
· TM resonated with my worldview and how I experience people as a therapist. I allowed the ‘therapist’ to integrate with the ‘mediator’ and remain separate at the same time. I saw relational empathy fostered between the parties with the interventions strengthening each party and reversing the effects of the negative spiral that happens in conflict.
· Reading more widely about conflict enabled an insight as to how the behaviours and emotions of people in conflict may have been pathologised in the ADR field for a whole host of reasons (and worthy of another blog).
· A coherent theoretical base increased my confidence as a practitioner and enabled me to examine practice critically and with curiosity.
Mediator support and development through reflective practice is a key priority for the service. Reflection has an important role within academic learning; pivotal to this is the concept of praxis as this provides an avenue for applying and integrating theory.
We retain the co-mediator model. This works in a more fluid way: mediators can chose to take the position of ‘lead mediator’ either as a model for the other mediator or as a novice where their practice can be observed, or work together. As mediations are requiring less time, a reflective session at the end of the joint meeting is shaping our framework for supervision.
This learning may have organisational benefits for manager education in the Trust. Managers may benefit from a greater understanding of the TM theory of conflict and be more conscious about how they react/respond to conflict, additionally helping those they manage in conflict.
TM is rarely practised in Britain; identifying other services and practitioners will enable a ‘community of practice’ for support and the potential for further studies. This process has already been enabled by the networking opportunities gathered in the process of attending the Master Class and Transformative Congress in Rome.
This is very much as a work in progress and I anticipate that other insights and opportunities will arise as a result of our service now having an over-arching theoretical base from which to practice. It will be important for me, as practitioner and manager, to be open to the emerging challenges as they arise.
Beal, S. and Saul, J (2001) ‘Examining Assumptions: Training Mediators for Transformative Practice.’ In Folger, J. and Bush, R. (editors) (2001) Designing Mediation: Approaches to Training and Practice within a Transformative Framework, New York: Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation.
Garcia, A.C (2010) The Role of Interactional Competence in Mediation. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, vol 28, no 2, p.205-228. Winter 2010. Wiley Periodicals, Inc. and the Association for Conflict Resolution. Published online in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com). Last accessed 4th July 2013
Posted by Dan Simon