Workplace mediation and the unreliable narrator

Written by Elizabeth Rosa, Founder and Principal at Resolve at Work

We all have our stories and see our lives through our individual lens. Each of us has our own way of looking at the world, influenced by our personality, optimistic or pessimistic, resilient or less resilient, our ability to be accountable for our own actions or not, our level of self-determination – motivated to move forward or not, or perhaps somewhere in between.

Our personality leads to our specific narrative: our way of seeing the past, as well as how we write a script for our future. When two people are involved in a past event, they will each see it in a different way. Even an innocuous event like a holiday: one person may remember how tired they were from the journey, whereas the other will remember how beautiful the scenery was. If someone asks both of them whether it was a good holiday or not, the answers they may receive might be very different. The person making the enquiry may be searching for the ‘truth’ of whether the holiday was good or not, perhaps wondering if they would enjoy the same holiday. But the truth is illusive. They cannot get a clear sense from the two people; they each seem unreliable in their own way. In fact, both of the people seem to be an unreliable narrator.

Let’s consider workplace mediation. It is like a microcosm of narrative-in-action. The two participants to the mediation have experienced a conflict with each other. You, as the mediator, listen to each participant separately in the pre-mediation meetings, or intake session, about what has occurred. You find that they each give a different version of what happened. But there are overlaps of the same information or facts. If you as the mediator were looking for the truth, you might feel disappointed. But the ‘truth’ does not matter. You are not conducting a forensic examination, you are not trying to find who was wrong or right, you are not there to make a determination.

The participants come across as unreliable narrators. Their versions of the facts do not correlate. They also tell the story with their particular slant on it. Their version becomes imbued with their personality: their level of optimism, resilience, accountability and self-determination. They may indicate that the other participant as the one to blame and that they are a victim. They may present themselves as stuck in a situation for which there is no possible way that they can move forward. Or they may present themselves as blameless- that they have done everything they could have done.

Although the truth is not important for the mediator, the participants are concerned about the truth. They want you, as mediator, to believe their story, often that the other participant is to blame and that they had no part in it. They want you to see the facts of the matter as indicators of the other participant’s modus operandi. They may try to paint a picture for you of the other’s guilt or fault. The most challenging party would like you to have the role of saying that the other was at fault and that there should be some punitive consequences against them.

What you are listening for as mediator is not the truth, but how the participant views the conflict and how they feel about it. The trampled feelings are keys to a number of things: their values, how they see themselves, and their ability to move forward from conflict. The participant’s values are what they expect in the workplace, for example, friendliness and listening. How they see themselves may be that they are hard-working, skilled and make a great contribution. They would like to be regarded this way by their colleagues and managers. Their ability to move forward from conflict may be stymied by their eagerness to have the other participant blamed for what has occurred, or it may be enabled by their own optimistic world-view, or at least, their need to stay in their job.

We as mediators can gratefully harness the insights into the world-view and personality that the ‘unreliable’ nature of the participants’ narratives give us.

In my next article I will discuss how to ask the best questions to assist the participants to firstly, consider how they feel about the conflict and secondly, explore their ideas for how they and the other participant could create a new script for their working relationship.

Elizabeth Rosa is a Nationally Accredited Mediator, a Workshop Facilitator and the Founder of Resolve at Work.