Developing essential skills for mediating across dispute contexts and cultures – An Interview with Tony Whatling
Tony Whatling is the author of the new book, Mediation Skills and Strategies: A Practical Guide. With over 25 years’ experience of mediation practice, he has published widely on the subject of mediation and is a professional practice consultant to a number of mediation services. He has designed and delivered training to over 1,000 Muslim mediators in the UK, Pakistan, India, USA, Canada, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Portugal, Syria and Afghanistan.
In this interview, Tony shares his experiences of mediating within different contexts and cultures, and explains why there is the need for a comprehensive guide to the skills and strategies in mediation.
You have worked in the field of mediation for over 20 years – what led you to become a mediator?
From the late 1960′s, I had a professional background in social sciences, social work practice, management and education, always with a part-time involvement in family therapy practice, throughout those different roles. As a tutor and head of a university department of social work education, I had always believed that, to maintain credibility, academics should not be detached from practice, so looked for a part-time role locally.
At that time family mediation was beginning to evolve in the UK, and in 1984 a mediation service opened in the city and offered the first ever national training in family mediation. I was subsequently appointed and within two years became one of a small team of trainers to deliver training across the UK in the not-for-profit sector. I left the university some 18 years ago to become a self-employed trainer, and expanded my experience so as to also offer training in community/neighbour, health care complaints, victim/offender and workplace mediation contexts.
Why was it important to write a book about mediation skills?
Despite the substantial growth in literature related to mediation, conciliation, conflict management and alternative dispute resolution (ADR), it is surprising that a book which offers a straightforward, comprehensive handbook of mediator skills and strategies has not so far been written. Whilst referring to some skills, books with titles referring to ‘mediation skills’ more commonly cover theories about conflict, legal issues, and how to manage the mediation process and its stages, rather than the essential core skills and strategies used by practitioners. My decision to write the book was also heavily influenced by constant requests to do so from the very many people I have trained over the past two decades.
Can you give us some examples of skills that mediators routinely employ? Mediation is practised in many different kinds of settings – are these skills employed universally?
The good news for trainee mediators is that the key skills that mediators use are effectively the same as those used by councillors, therapists, managers, and HR staff – indeed anyone involved in what can be termed ‘people-working’ professions. They are essentially also what most people have developed as good quality interpersonal communication skills for everyday life: for example, active listening with understanding, paraphrasing, summarising, clarifying, empathising and using a range of different forms of questioning. The key difference is that mediators are using such skills for different outcome objectives than, say, a therapist, namely in helping disputants negotiate agreements and mutually acceptable settlements. Again, the good news is that these skills are entirely appropriate across all dispute resolution contexts. The procedural steps employed by a mediator will differ depending on the conflict at hand – for example, a spousal dispute versus a commercial or workplace dispute – but the skills are universal.
Typical dictionary definitions describe a skill as ‘the ability to do something well’ or ’expertise or dexterity’, whereas a strategy is commonly defined as ‘a plan designed to achieve a particular long-term aim’.
Professionals firstly need to practice and develop specific core mediation skills in order to be able to apply them with a particular outcome in mind.
It is hard to conceive of any skill being used by a mediator that will not have some degree of either minor or major strategic effect. For example, the mediator will use the skill of active listening so that they fully understand the client, but also to demonstrate an interest in them as a person. In this scenario, the client hopefully perceives the mediator as both skilful and interested in them as a person. This in turn will also help towards developing trust in the mediator, and indeed the mediation process itself as a method of resolving the dispute. I give many more examples in the book of these core mediation skills and how they are applied strategically towards helping the parties involved to move through the mediation process. Purposefulness and intentionality therefore are the hallmarks of skilled practice.
You run skills training throughout the UK, but also around the world. Are there differences in the way that mediation is practised within different countries and cultures?
There are significant differences in the way that mediation is practised within different countries and cultures, and the most significant differences relate to the Western versus non-Western cultural context. Generally speaking, in Western, individualist cultures, conflict is regarded as an inevitable fact of everyday life and, in many cases, even as a necessary indicator of a need for improvement – for example, in unsatisfactory work-place relationships or with consumer products. Consequently, mediation has come to be regarded as a way to get things out into the open and on the table so as to solve problems and negotiate mutually acceptable settlements and agreements, usually with the help of impartial, trained mediators who are not normally known to the parties in dispute.
By contrast, in many non-Western, communitarian cultures, conflict is generally regarded as abhorrent, a threat to community cohesion and a matter of individual, family and community failings, and is therefore something to avoid, suppress or smooth over. Mediation in this context tends to be conducted by known and respected senior members of the community. Conflict management and negotiations are typically much less direct, take longer and may involve many more members of the extended family and community stake holders – usually with a strong emphasis on reconciliation and a ‘bandaging of the wounds’. Where such internal processes are unsuccessful, arbitration is historically more commonplace and again is provided by respected community and faith elders. Settlements determined by such processes tend to accepted by all concerned, regardless of who wins or loses, as an indication of the historical respect for the authority of the arbitrator.
What has been the most challenging piece of work that you have done which involved drawing upon all of your skills as a mediator?
Two particular examples stand out as the most challenging. The first was a family mediation involving a divorcing couple where the wife was terminally ill, with possibly weeks or at best a few months to live. She expressed very considerable anger with the surgeons, who had at initially thought that surgery had been successful – only to discover later that her illness had spread extensively. She was also still very angry with her husband who had left her for another woman prior to her diagnosis. We achieved little other than some plans for the next few weeks, as we had to end the meeting when her emotional and physical condition deteriorated to the point where she could no longer communicate effectively. I still believe that it was right to respect her wish to mediate. At an intellectual level it made sense, and yet emotionally – given the catastrophic losses that this woman faced: marriage, children and life itself – how could anyone be expected to cope with negotiating arrangements for a time when they are no longer here?
The other situation involved a couple in Syria and matters of family honour. Two members of the wife’s family had not only defrauded her husband of a substantial amount of money through business dealings, but had maligned his character within the close-knit local community. It would not be appropriate to give details, but after some eight years the matter had gone from bad to worse, despite many attempts at mediation and reconciliation. Given the family connections and long running emotional stress, the dispute now threatened the husband’s long-standing marriage, as well as his career as a very successful business man and academic. My female Muslim co-worker and I worked with the husband and wife for several hours, through intense heat and inadequate air-conditioning, on the day we were due to leave Syria after delivering a training programme. By the end, we felt that we had gone some way to helping to reconcile the marriage and the couple both expressed sincere gratitude, in particular for the fact that we had been the first people not to tell the husband to ‘forgive and forget’ or to get on with his life for the sake of his family, his children and community cohesion. We also helped to begin to formulate a plan in which a mutually trusted relative from the wife’s family might be sufficiently trusted on both sides, to convey an apology from her father to her husband – an option that would potentially enable both families to save face. The husband was fully prepared to write off the substantial financial loss, but had become obsessed – to the point of potentially serious mental and physical ill heath – with the damage done to his reputation as an honourable man. This situation brought home to me vividly just how very serious matters of shame and honour are in certain non-Western, communitarian cultures. When at one stage I asked the husband what he would do if an apology was not forthcoming, he thought long and hard before saying, ‘Then I will have only one remaining option, which is to kill them.’ He looked and sounded very serious.
I like to believe that he was sufficiently intelligent and aware of the legal consequences of such actions enough to not carry out that threat, and yet I was left in no doubt of the intensity of his emotions and beliefs. Whilst in many respects he had outwardly become very Westernised, his cultural values regarding family honour were still deeply embedded in his psyche. As someone brought up in a Western culture, I can potentially understand and indeed empathise with his wish to avoid dishonour and shame, and yet, personally upsetting as it might be, the actions I might resort to are incomparable across our different cultural worlds.
To return to your original question, such disputes inevitably test a mediator’s skills to the limit. They are also a powerful reminder of what I refer to in some detail in the book, namely that they should never be applied outside of a framework of appropriate professional values, attitudes and cultural sensitivity and awareness. Skills, strategies and professional practice can never be value-free.
Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.