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

The first part of this article looked at how participants in a mediation may often give an unreliable narrative. However, this ‘unreliable’ narrative is a window onto how the participant views the conflict, and how they feel about it. These trampled feelings are the key to gaining a number of valuable insights: the values held by participants, how they see themselves, and indicate their ability to move forward from conflict.

In this second article, we look at how to ask the best questions to assist participants to firstly, consider how they feel about the conflict and, secondly, to help them explore ideas how both they and the other participant could work better together.

It is important to assist the participant to unpack their feelings and reactions to the conflict, as they would like you, as mediator, to know how they feel. If they do not feel ‘heard’ by you, they may struggle to continue exploring ideas as to how they and the other party could re-construct their working relationship.

The pre-mediation meeting, or intake session, gives you the opportunity to interview each participant separately.

In the early part of the pre-mediation meeting, the participant will talk in a free-flowing narrative about what happened, or what has brought them to a need for a mediation. As the mediator listening to them, you will get an understanding of their feelings around the issues. You may wish to reflect back what you have understood by listening to them your how they feel. This can be done in a number of ways.

Firstly, through questioning. For example, “You said that after the incident in July, Jane was cold every time you had to ask a question. How did this make you feel?” This version of questioning is better than “How did you feel about this?” as the latter may bring the participant to their cognitive brain to say how they “thought” about it, for example, “it was unacceptable behaviour.” Instead it is more beneficial to fish for words that capture emotions. For example, “I felt fearful/stressed/depressed/stuck.”

Or, secondly, through summarising. “You said that after the incident in July, Jane was cold every time you had to ask a question. You found it difficult to go to work.” This may prompt the participant to expand and say more about how they felt.

A third option is to reframe, “You said that after the incident in July, it was difficult for you to approach Jane to ask a question.” The participant may be encouraged to explain why it was difficult and their emotions around this.

In hearing what their feelings were, as mediator, consider what the participants’ values are and how they see themselves. You could ask them, “I think what I am hearing is that it is important to you that…”. For example, “…that people are open and friendly at work?” Or, “I hear that it is important to you that you are appreciated for your level of knowledge of the organisation?”

After the feelings are unpacked, you will have a greater understanding of the participant’s values and world view. You can get an idea from this of their ability to move forward from the conflict. They may have revealed that they have an unrealistic view of themselves, or that they cannot put themselves in the other person’s shoes. Or that they value something in the workplace that they do not appear to have given to others. That they see themselves as a victim or that they would like a punitive result for the other participant. This would be at one extreme. At the other extreme, they may be very cooperative and able to see the other person’s point of view. They may see themselves as having agency and able to think forward and generate ideas for a better working relationship with the other participant.

Some parties may be more able or motivated to move forward from the conflict. But whatever level of motivation the participant has, you can harness their values and what is important to them to assist them to propose ideas for a future working relationship. For a more reluctant participant, choose a more pragmatic approach: ask what would make things better for them - a better working relationship with the other participant? That they could achieve more of their own work goals? You could reflect back to them their own work values and what they would like from the other participant in order to achieve those values. Also, you could ask them what they could offer for the other participant which would be a demonstration of their own values in action.

Following this approach will help you improve your skills as a mediator, to help unfold the complexities that draw people to needing a mediation, and ultimately, lead participants to their own insights around the issues that have arisen within the workplace and a satisfactory resolution.

Elizabeth Rosa is a Nationally Accredited Mediator, a Trainer and the Principal of Resolve-at-Work.