How did I find out about mediation? The industry federation of which I am a Director had recently adopted mediation as a means of fast, inexpensive dispute resolution offering it as a member service. This was in the wake of small but rising numbers of customer led disputes, all involving the rejection of large value purchases. It was becoming apparent that not only was mediation an effective alternative to litigation, it would also be used more. Our problem was insufficient mediators associated with our industry body.
I was approached by the Company Secretary, a friend and recently qualified mediator, who invited me to “volunteer” to be trained. “What is involved and how long will it take?” I asked “Nothing much to it, just a few sessions and you will be brilliant at it” he replied.
So, on a bright, warm spring morning, suited and booted, I presented myself at 3 Grays Inn Square for Module 1. (A word of caution to those who may follow in my intrepid foot steps – details that you read on the course will tell you that the assessment is at the end – The assessment starts the moment that you walk in the door!) Just like a first day at school, unsure of what to expect, not knowing anyone and a little nervous, we waited eagerly for our first session. Introducing ourselves, the eclectic mix of students was immediate testimony to the wide appeal of mediation; quantity surveyor, two solicitors, one barrister, health trust IT manager, Inland waterways manager, two consultants and an alternative medicine practitioner. Two days of an interesting but seemingly slow introduction to mediation followed. On the early evening of the concluding day, comparing notes in the Pub (conveniently located right outside Grays Inn) students concurred that we were somewhat taken aback at being advised how to dress, a little perplexed by some of the terminology, intrigued by the unpredictable appearances of the Course Director, impressed by the grand surroundings for lunch, surprised that it all seemed quite easy and feeling rather perky at the prospect of breezing through the rest of the course. Little did we know what was in store!
Modules 2 and 3 are run on consecutive days. 3 weeks later, in smart neutral dress (no club ties) we started to find out what mediation was really about. The first sessions of simulated dispute resolution with critical, very critical, analysis. We would make our first introduction to the “Golden Rules” for most of us wrongly applied; start the impossible re learning of use of the English language; think about every word used and the constant need to take care over every nuance of use; suffer constant interruption, continuous correction and perpetual questioning of the thought process; end the session being informed that we were the only training group that had failed to unwind the sequential mediation routine in the allotted time.(was this a ploy?)
This time, the session in the pub was somewhat different. Not so confident, starting to question the ability to make simple judgements, beginning to realise that everything at 3 Grays Inn was not quite so simple and straight forward as first thought, actually wondering if we could manage the serious adjustments that would have to be made.
Learning the mediators opening statement for Modules 4 and 5 became an obsession. A tape recording with me on all occasions, mouthing the unfamiliar text until word perfect. Not easy, as it is language that does not spring to the front of the brain of a 65 year old Company Chairman.
“Chairman”, this was to become my next nearly impossible challenge. “You are too imposing and too assertive, you exert too much authority” the repeated commentary from our trainers. Soften up and back off the requirement. Me? Too imposing and authoritative? My wife nearly fell off her chair laughing at my incredulity.
Practice was advised, practice on what and how? I started to apply a new approach to dealing with daily family routine, listening intently, polite consultation and deferring decisions to my wife. “Are you ill”? was the first response, followed by “Stop mediating me!” when it dawned that she was my first experiment. A board meeting became totally confused (and in retrospect, more productive) when its chairman started a fully engaged consultation actually encouraging discussion and deferring matters to the executive managers for further input. Even shopping became a new opportunity with advice sought and listened to at every opportunity.
And this is where the training became almost impossible. The self analysis and the questioning of my whole approach to dealing with situations and the need to listen, listen, listen and to not make quick assumptions. Long stares into the bathroom mirror trying to adopt a more benign countenance; what did my body language say? How could I maintain control without imposing authority and all the time worrying about every word? Too late I realised what all the advice in early modules had been leading to, too late that what had been told to me by my friend encouraging me to undertake the training had been a lie! This was not going to be easy at all, infact, it was the hardest thing that I had attempted and I had serious doubts that I could do it.
Two weeks later and back at Grays Inn for the Assessment, dry mouth, nervous and trying to remember all the cribs that I had made for myself, hoping that I would not be first. The short first sessions done and then the long full length sessions started, noting how others had adapted and marvelling at the inventiveness of some of the role play.(even more so when reading the role play briefs afterwards!)
My turn and the realisation that points scored in earlier sessions would now come home to roost with a bang as fellow mediators took an almost corrupt pleasure in giving me the hard time that I had undoubtedly earned. The sheer joy of getting a settlement followed by the sober reflection of how much on the edge and only just in control the day had been for me
Comparing notes in the pub that evening with everyone in demob mood, the universal feeling was that we had all failed to make the grade. Well, most of us were right, two passed and for the rest of us, a recommendation for more training and a further assessment. Was I surprised? No. If I had passed and then been asked to mediate I would not have been terrifyingly unready. I found the learning process with the need to adapt and change too intense and too compacted. The adjustments that I had to make to my personal style and approach too much to take in and modify within the short period between each session.
The training provided and the team of trainers is challenging, thoughtful and very focussed. The supervision of each persons development and suitability as a mediator undertaken to a very high quality. I feel privileged to have undertaken and passed the training, probably the hardest thing that I have attempted in the twilight of my business life. Will I be any good at it? I don’t know, but bring it on!
With time to think and adjust and further practice I passed the second assessment, enjoyed the whole day and felt in almost complete control.
To say that training to become a mediator had changed my life would be an exaggeration. To ignore the changes that it has made to the way that I now conduct myself, particularly in potentially confrontational situations, would be an understatement. I listen more, take time to think about what has been said, prepare more carefully for meetings in the way that I dress and have almost stopped making assumptions. I have amazed my wife by letting her decide what her next car would be and further, fully engaging in the selection process (she still thinks that I am ill or that this is some kind of protracted tease)
Has all this made me a push over? I don’t think so. I have learned that there are more ways of getting things done than by the obvious route, that winning is a long game and fully involving others a lot more fun and effective. At my age, to learn new skills and to do things in a new different way is an intriguing opportunity.
This article was first published in The Expert and Dispute Resolver, the journal of The Academy of Experts.