People in conflict may naturally feel apprehensive when they have to talk to each other and resolve their dispute through mediation. With the help of a mediator, however, these concerns can be addressed properly.

Why Are Most People Reluctant To Participate In Mediation?

People will naturally have unpleasant feelings after being involved in a conflict with another person or an organisation. The party that has been wronged may feel anger and/or frustration over the situation while those that were accused of wrongdoing may feel defensive. When the time comes for them to undergo mediation, both sides can become apprehensive of the process; especially over the prospect of discussing the matter openly with one another.

It is not uncommon for people to fear that the other side will refuse to listen to them. They may perceive the other side as unreasonable, illogical and irrational. When it comes to resolving the dispute, the party will have low expectations of the other side, and fear they will be unhelpful, obstructive and difficult to work with in discussing and formulating a solution. These thoughts can quickly make people hesitant to participate in mediation.

Ironically, it’s not uncommon that both parties in a dispute have these perceptions about each other! While these thoughts are common in conflicts, and there are even times when parties may behave unreasonably or illogically, this does not necessarily mean that those involved do not want to have the issue resolved. As people often discover during their mediation, the fear and perceptions they had of the opposing party are often far from the reality. After all, the opposing party wants to move on as well and thus will work toward a common goal.

Sometimes, parties may feel uneasy going through mediation due to their previous experiences with disputes. Perhaps, others in their past have reacted overwhelmingly to their reaction to conflict, preventing them from expressing what they really wanted to say during mediation. These participants might fear loss of face, or fear letting others down in their involvement.

On the other hand, there are people who feel it is important to speak out whenever they are involved in conflicts. They may see themselves as confrontational, and thus find it difficult to participate in a collaborative discussion with the other side. If the other party is not as responsive as they are, they might see them as not being open to the discussion and difficult to work with in formulating a potential solution.

Apart from the perceptions that parties have against each other, they can also be apprehensive of mediation itself. They may not fully understand how, if at all, mediation can help resolve disputes. They fear that mediation might yield an outcome that is unjust or unfavourable to either one of them. They can also become dubious about how the involvement of a third-party can lead to a mutually-satisfying resolution, especially when they are not a subject matter expert themselves.

 

How Can Mediators Address These Apprehensions Of Participants?

a. Mediators meet with both sides in private to prepare them for the joint session.

Before the joint mediation session begins, mediators take stock of your concerns and go through them with you. Ideally, this should be done in private so that you can comfortably raise questions and disclose your feelings. If you have doubts or if you are hesitant to work with the other side, the mediator can assure you that most parties feel this way before starting mediation but also have the inclination to solve their dispute together.

Mediation might also appear intimidating because it is unfamiliar. However, you do not need to worry about it since the mediator can explain the process to both of you. For instance, agreeing to mediate is not a sign of weakness, or having to compromise. Through mediation, you and the other participant can state your cases equally. As an impartial third-party, the mediator will not judge your dispute. Instead, the mediator facilitates the discussion so that you and the other side will be able to work together productively. Should the other side become unreasonable or illogical during the course of the discussion; the mediator can reframe the conversation so that you and the other party can focus on important topics. If the joint session becomes heated, the mediator can ask both of you to take a break so as to calm down.

b. Mediators reality test the positions and perspectives of each party privately to reduce anxiety.

Aside from fear, participants may also be anxious over mediation. According to researcher Joseph LeDoux, anxiety is an internal reaction while fear comes from external circumstances. Anxiety stems from lack of self-confidence and control over the situation. Since it is internal, it is usually not noticed, but it can paralyse a person from participating in the discussion.

Perhaps you feel anxious that the other party will be irrational, obstructive and unhelpful in the discussion. You can disclose these feelings to the mediator when you meet privately before the joint session. As the facilitator, they guide the discussion toward issues that matter.

Whenever you feel uncertain during the joint session, you and the other side can take a break, or request the mediator to meet both of you separately. In these private meetings, the mediator can reality test your position and proposed outcomes from a practical and emotional point of view. Through this, you can rest assure that you have nothing to lose in the process. Furthermore, the mediator can go back between you and the other side to brainstorm and test possible solutions. This will show you that the other party is not unhelpful and wants to collaborate to resolve the dispute.

Additionally, the mediator can also affirm you for your courage in participating in mediation; especially on having the strength to face your opponent, listen and work with them. Once it is over, you will have a positive framework for resolving conflicts in the future.

c. Mediators ensure equal participation of both sides in mediation.

In mediation, you don’t need to worry about the other side being obstructive in the discussion. Mediators use different skills to facilitate and guide the discussion in such a way that both parties get to have their say on the dispute, ensuring equal participation. The mediator will set the ground rules for behaviour during the mediation and will be aware of any power imbalance and level the playing field. Through “gatekeeping,” the mediator can ask the other party to listen and encourage you to speak; and vice versa. The mediator can also point out or reframe the emotions of the group or a participant as part of “harmonising,” or reducing the tension in joint sessions.

When the discussion becomes unhelpful, you might feel the need to give up. The mediator can help you and the other side remain on track, and encourage both of you by highlighting the accomplishments you have made in the discussion. This will show you that it is possible to work with your opponent to resolve your conflict through the process of mediation.

These strategies before and during the mediation and the mediation process itself help all parties to overcome personal concerns and refocus everyone on future outcomes of life without the dispute.