«Buying What We Sell Matters». Do Mediators Apply Their Knowledge To Their Own Conflicts?

Abridged version in English of the original


Attention is drawn to the need that mediation professionals should use the strategies and abilities acquired to exercising their professional activity to both their daily life and the professional field, where relational conflicts and clashes of interests are common. It is not that mediators cannot have conflicts, as normally understood in our field, but rather that they need to take actions to correctly manage their own conflicts. The author outlines his own techniques and strategies to be used in this process that puts mediators at the centre of their own conflicts: communication skills, narrative construction, allied seeking, «PIN» diagram (Positions, Interests, Needs), the contributions of Transactional Analysis, and externalisation, among other.


Keywords: Mediator. Conflict. PIN (Position-Interests-Needs). Transactional Analysis. Externalisation

«The cobblers children have no shoes» – the essence of this maxim is to describe the phenomenon whereby certain professionals, are so busy with work for their customers, that they neglect to use their skills to help themselves in their daily life and work.

For example – the electrician who never finishes the wiring in his own house, the web designer that hasn’t finished their website, or the physician who neglects their own health.

In this article I aim to raise issues about the extent to which mediators, as experts in conflict resolution, are able to apply their everyday «bread and butter» skills and strategies, to conflicts that arise in their daily lives.

In particular I aim to:

  • Identify the problems that we all know exist, to a greater or lesser degree, namely that in all families and organisations, conflict is inevitable – and that it is just as common within mediation organisations.
  • Raise awareness as to the extent of the problem.
  • Identify some common characteristics of the problem.
  • Remind readers of the everyday professional methods of dispute resolution management.
  • Offer some ideas for how such personal disputes might be managed.

Over some three decades of involvement with the development of mediation in the UK, I have witnessed conflicts between professional mediation colleagues that have been perplexing and at times very serious.

The conflicts arising from these disputes have had all of the ingredients of potentially destructive conflict – the early history, the trigger, the spark, the fanning of the flames and finally, in some cases, the metaphorical destructive conflagration.

Such processes are all too familiar to mediators in their daily work with parties in dispute.

Over a period of a few weeks or months conflict narratives are written, line by line and paragraph by paragraph, into metaphorical chapters that are to become the history books, or so called «truths» of the facts and details.

As every mediator knows, each person’s «history» records a very different account of what had led up to the rifts.

Each parties friends and family members rally to take their side in support, as the voices of the «Greek chorus» swell to amplify and further embroider the historical accounts. «When the mediator first meets with the disputants each person has a story to tell. These stories consist of three parts – a version of the events, a complaint about the other, and a problem definition.»… Each version is designed to show the mediator how good he or she is; how each is the victim of the situation. The second part, the complaint, is designed to show the mediator how bad the other is. The hallmark of the definition of the problem is that each person defines it in such a way that it can only be solved by a change in the behaviour or position of the other. A’s problem can only be solved by a change in B, and B’s problem can only be solved by a change in A. (Haynes, 1993 pp. 6 & 7)

As specialists in the field of dispute resolution know only too well, conflict in social and organisational environments is inevitable and inescapable.

It is not a question of if conflict exists but how well it is managed that matters.

We also know that without conflict there would be very little change for the better, or improvement in most aspects of life. «Conflict can signal constructive ways of bringing about change and of re-ordering lives. At least the potential for positive change is greater when there is anger than where there is the helplessness and hopelessness of depression.» (Roberts, 2008, p. 108).

We can of course all also be involved in sorting out many every day personal disputes, without the process necessarily having to escalate into conflict.

Throughout my career in mediation, such conflicts continue to occur in mediation organisations, despite our many years of developing understanding about how to manage them constructively.

These conflicts can have potentially very serious consequences to individuals, the organisations concerned, and potentially to innocent bystanders, within the wider professional arena.

It might be of far less concern, if for example we compared these issues to other professional groups, such as accountants, lawyers, engineers, doctors, or politicians.

Whilst we might hope that they could manage their disputes wisely, we would also recognise that, by comparison with mediators, it was not a matter that was so crucial to their core business and professional specialism.

Over the past 30 years of professional involvement with mediation I have year on year witnessed such conflicts between mediators, staff and managers, including up to the highest echelons of our national professional organisations.

Commonly such disputes are often «dissolved» – for example by one side stepping down or leaving – rather than «resolved», a consequence of which is that the unresolved feelings subsequently resurface in any future conflict in the organisation.

«But it is different when it’s us that are directly involved, isn’t it?»

I can understand what people mean when they say that, but no, it should not be different. As mediators we open our doors to the public as experts in conflict management and dispute resolution and we should therefore quite reasonably be expected to manage it constructively when it involves us personally.

In fact it is all the more imperative that as mediators we «practice what we preach» – «put our money where our mouth is» or indeed to be willing «to buy that which we sell».

I do want at this point to emphasise that, whilst my practice and training is primarily in family mediation I have also practised or delivered training in other contexts including community/neighbour, health care complaints, victim offender and workplace contexts so consequently have also had significant contact with their associated organisations.

My training activity over the past 12 years has also included delivering foundation training programmes worldwide, to over 1200 Muslim trainee mediators, in some 15 different countries including Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and North America.

From that experience I can confirm that the issues covered in this article are by no means just a UK phenomenon – it would appear that they are both universal and multi-cultural.

I also appreciate that experience in one mediation context, for example family, may make it difficult for a practitioner to apply understanding and skills to a different context such as their own workplace disputes. However my wide ranging experience suggests that most of the issues, conflict dynamics, skills and strategies are universal across all mediation contexts and therefore, arguably should be transferrable, both in our comprehension and understanding.

So what then can be done? Some ideas for managing the conflicts.

What follows is little more than a reminder of what, as mediators, we already know and a checklist of potential options available to us.

Perhaps this would be a good point to remind readers of some of the core tenets of our everyday practice in the business of dispute resolution. I refer here to the principles, values, knowledge, skills and strategies that mediators deliver routinely to our customers, and yet often seem so reluctant to apply consistently when it involves us.

Apply a «needs-led» analysis in the search for interests and needs that underpin positions.

Mediators know well how the magic moments of mediation happen, when through the skilful and strategic use of questions, they uncover layers of shared interests and values – and more important still, shared fears and mutual needs. «All participants enter the mediation process with a position. It is part of their problem definition. Positions are usually taken in an emotional climate and do not always match the disputant’s self-interest. Bargaining about positions often results in a stalemate» (Haynes, 1993, p. 4).

Andrew Floyer Acland describes what is known as the «PIN» (Positions, Interests, Needs), diagram, the three levels of the pyramid diagram showing how, at the peak are the positions that disputants take and typically bring to mediation. The second level relates to wants, values and interests and the third level to the deeper needs of all parties to the dispute. Like the iceberg, the tip, or peak, is often all that is observable above the surface in the initial stages of mediation. (Acland, 1990, p. 152)

Through skilful needs-led questions, the mediator gradually facilitates a move away from each parties opening positional statements, and so exposes the common areas of interest and needs of each party. As each new pyramid sub-level emerges, joint areas of common values and interests are uncovered – and more important still at the lower level, the crucial area of joint needs are revealed.

So for example, when directors and managers attempt to impose new contracts of employment terms and conditions, often without prior consultation with those who are directly affected by the changes, both sides tend to quickly assume «positions».

Typically these positions include positional statements by employers such as «Sign the new contracts now or face dismissal» – perhaps adding some moral pressure by citing the potentially serious financial consequences for the organisation unless the contracts are accepted.

On the staff side, the responses are commonly along the lines of «Impose those contracts and we will have no option but to withdraw our labour». Before very long, such opening position statements tend to degenerate into even greater threats.

As referred to above, the «needs-led» analysis employed by mediators, gradually moves people off their previously fixed positions and uncovers mutual needs and fears such as, the need to maintain employment, income, productivity and customer services.

In most instances, there is also a need for a reduction in stress, distress and disequilibrium, together with a need to avoid the potential loss of financial and time resources, by resorting to more formal procedures such as tribunals, arbitration and litigation.

Mediators understand that it is common for each party to the conflict to refer to the other as being a «control freak», of «refusing to step down or let go of control», of «adopting rigid positions» – and of threatening very serious actions unless the other side backs down.

Commonly, each side speaks of how they personally are «only interested in the best interests of the organisation, productivity and customer services». This is akin to the separating parent who, whilst going all out to disempower the other parent, will commonly claim to be «Only concerned with the best interests and safety of the child».

Despite knowing as much as I do about dispute resolution, I admit to being as capable as any of us imperfect human beings, of getting drawn into interpersonal conflict. This occurs through a natural inclination, often driven by a fear of loss, to adopt a rigid position, make threats, and to begin to metaphorically write my own idiosyncratic historical narrative of the what, who, and how of the dispute. Alas, if I was just half as good a person as I know how to be, I would be truly amazing.

What has changed for me over the years of involvement in dispute resolution is that after a few days or weeks of such behaviour, I now hear a little inner voice that goes something like – «Hang on, you know very well what is going on here and what you are you doing – you are stoking the fire and fanning the flames. What this situation needs instead is for you to initiate a dialogue in which you ask the significant others to talk about their wants, needs and fears, and ask in return that they will listen to yours».

From such «listening with understanding» activities will hopefully flow agreements as to how to resolve the dispute and re-establish good working relationships to the mutual benefit of all concerned.

Remember that to be a mediator you must believe that the majority of people in a dispute are capable of being a) reasonable and b) rational. The problem is that when they come to you they are often behaving in ways that are very unreasonable and irrational.

Use your primary communication organs proportionately – two ears, two eyes and one mouth – i.e. do more listening and observing than speaking – «Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.» Plato

Never press the email or text «send» button till you have slept on it and recognise the damage that modern electronic cryptic communications create in today’s social, personal and professional world.

Resist at all costs the temptation to make threats. When we do that it is usually a signal of desperation and we are frequently not in a position to carry them through – not least with any less cost to us than the other side. «Threats are made out of weakness; promises are made out of strength» (Haynes 1989, p. 42) Or as John puts it so succinctly in his video «Powerful people act, powerless people threaten». (John Haynes video of Debbie and Michael – «Haynes on Haynes»).

Remember to reframe the dispute and crisis as an opportunity for change and transformation towards better understandings and the greater good, health and well-being of our institutions and professional colleagues.

Don’t resort to the old «personality clash» cop-out – a commonly used explanation by disputants to account for problems – and yet how hard it is to resist sometimes.

In my early days of practice I had a team colleague who from our frequent conversations and indeed arguments, appeared to have nothing whatsoever in common with me. We both seemed to be aware that our core values about people appeared to be so far at odds, that we managed to avoid co-working together for a year or so. On my part at least this came from a fear that these differences would inevitably impair our working partnership. Eventually it became clear that this avoidant behaviour was having a negative impact on the rest of the team. Discovering this, I invited the colleague to discuss it – as a result of which we agreed work a case together. In reality we worked very effectively together, and continued to do so from then on, with no demonstrable evidence of any of the conflicts of values I had feared.

In referring to this problem, Andrew Floyer Acland writes: «The only way I know of actually resolving a personality clash is head-on: by admitting the feeling and setting out to trace its causes. If this is done fully and honestly, looking at each other’s: Values, Opinions, Assumptions about each other, Prejudices about background, education, even accent or race, then maybe the situation can be redeemed». (Acland, 1990, p. 61).

Push for needs-led discussions that identify not what you and the other(s) don’t want, but what you all do want and need.

Maintain «adult-adult» transactions. Regardless of the number of «crossed transactions» you get in response, the more you respond in «adult-adult» problem-solving mode, the harder it is for the respondent to cross the transaction from «controlling/critical parent» or «rebellious/angry child».

Start from a «life position» of I’m OK – You’re OK (Harris 1973 in Whatling 2012, p. 40-41).

Record and share the issues in neutral mutual language.

Once the stories have been articulated and ventilated, push for future-focused «SMART» outcome objectives – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bounded. Such objectives should also be needs-led and include statements of principles against which to evaluate outcome agreements – for example for a mutual commitment to early win/win settlements and a return to former constructive and productive working relationships.

Be «hard on the problem and soft on the people». Externalise the problem as an «it» rather than a «they» – a surprisingly powerful and effective technique described by John Winlade and Gerald Monk as «Externalising conversations». «As mediators externalise a problem, they speak about it as if it were an external object or person exerting a negative influence on the parties but they do not identify it closely with one party or the other» (Winslade & Monk, 2001, p. 144).

So for example, such a mediator would stop talking about the people who are causing the problem and instead would identify the issue that is responsible. It is not that the working partnership has broken down because a certain person «fails to respond to emails», «is rude, manipulative or a bully», but that a «communication breakdown» or «trust problem» is what is preventing the resolution of the dispute – «it» having come between the parties in dispute. The narrative mediator will often use an object such as a pen to symbolise the «it», perhaps placing it down on the table between the disputants whilst talking about when and how it had come between them, what was the relationship like before this thing happened and caused such serious problems.

Having thus externalised and objectified the problem the mediator will invite the disputants to identify actions that might begin to remove the «it» problem from the working relationship – usually maintaining the symbolism by simultaneously removing the pen from between the parties. Like so many of the apparently simple techniques and strategies mediators use, I never cease to be surprised at how powerful this technique can be, particularly in the all-important business of face-saving.

Try to avoid the natural human temptation to engage in the psychological defence mechanism of «displacement». We are all bound to want to protect our own private, (internal), and public, (external), self-image or «face». When they hear a client say «I know I wasn’t always the ideal spouse/boss/business partner, the mediator knows only too well that the next word will be a resounding ‘BUT’ – usually followed by a long list of the sins and failings of the other. To resist doing so is hard, since if we accept even 50% of the blame or responsibility for what is going wrong, we will still find that hard to live with and with its negative impact on our self-image».

«Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?» [Matthew 7:3].

«Conflict provides opportunities for people to express aspects of their personality which are normally kept hidden. More than this, people project on to others their own personality or behaviour: they accuse other people of doing things or behaving in ways in which they themselves are behaving, or want to behave». (Acland, 1990, p. 105).

Ask for help from trusted colleagues, who are known to both sides to be capable of being objective and impartial.

Don’t react or retaliate – A friend of mine going through divorce used to read me the latest inflammatory and goading letter from his wife’s solicitor – and then his own equally adversarial response. Several times I pointed out that by far the best way to end this war of words was not to react. His response was inevitably that he just could not resist it. In effect he was enjoying the adrenalin rush and ritual of this «game» despite the inevitable damaging side-effect it was having on his relationship with his children.

Remember that win/win is not just the absence of win/lose or lose/lose, but an outcome where the «total result of the outcome is greater than the sum of its parts». In other words, by engaging in constructive option development, we may well uncover outcomes that are better for all concerned, including organisations, than either side had previously identified.

But what if they won’t play? Mediator colleagues in dispute frequently tell of how, despite doing everything to engage the other side in dialogue, they won’t respond.

Try some «negotiation jujitsu» as so well defined by Fisher & Ury in their all-time classic negotiation skills text «Getting to Yes» – «If the other side announces a firm position, you may be tempted to criticise and reject it. If they criticise your proposal you may be tempted to defend it and dig yourself in’. In short, if they push you hard, you will tend to push back. Do not push back. When they assert their positions, do not reject them. When they attack your ideas, don’t defend them. As in the Oriental martial arts of judo and jujitsu, avoid pitting your strength against them directly; instead use your skill to step aside and turn their strength to your ends. Rather than resisting their force, channel it into exploring issues, inventing options for mutual gain, and searching for independent standards.» See their book for a more detailed account of how to do this. (Fisher & Ury, 1981, pp.113-114).

Reward your achievement by celebrating with the other party perhaps with mutual friends and colleagues – perhaps over a glass or two of good Spanish wine! By your example of personal and professional maturity, you may well be an inspiration to others when they encounter similar conflicts.

Whilst limited space prevents detailed analysis here, Deborah Borisoff (Borisoff & Victor, 1989, pp. 37-48) also offers detailed recommendations and advice as to how to manage our personal disputes, from a communication theory perspective, under the following headings:

  • Identifying the Problem
  • Proposing Solutions
  • Assessing solutions
  • Spontaneity
  • Avoid Negative Criticism
  • Generate Viable Solutions
  • Combine and Integrate Proposals
  • Appraise Proposals
  • Empathy
  • Understanding the Other Party’s Perspective
  • Avoid Evaluating the Other Party
  • Verbal Constructs for Feedback
  • Equality
  • Encourage Participation in the Communication Process
  • Respect the Other Party’s Ideas and Experiences
  • Confirm the Other Party’s Assertions

What strikes me about her proposals is that they can be usefully summed up as a reflection of the biblical exhortation – «Do unto others as you would have them do unto you»

In conclusion, I often recall the wise words often spoken at training events by the late John Haynes, who described the mission of the mediator as «searching for the good in people» to which he would usually add – «and you can choose ATTRIBUTION DETAIL whether you spell ‘good’ with two o’s or one».

My hope is that mediators everywhere will consider and reflect on this paper in the spirit that it is written. Despite my continued doubts about the wisdom of offering it for publication I keep coming back to the essential conundrum that is – what is it that, as experts in our field and craft, makes it so difficult for us to routinely practice what we preach?


What is Revista de Mediación

It is an academic, biannual, online, and free of charge journal on Mediation and other ADR, of high editorial quality, highlighted relevance and professional interest that encourages scientific study and rigor, best practices and innovation, analysis and positive resolution of conflict through alternative and peaceful ways (ADR). It is addressed to mediators, specialists in conflict analysis, management and resolution, and to those interested in these fields.

What articles are accepted

The “Revista de Mediación” management team considers the best authors and the most updated research projects that might be of interest for the entire mediation practitioners. Having quality papers is, ultimately, the main criterion to decide upon publication. In order to accurately respond to the professional principle this Journal aims at, we consider that it is appropriate to meet some requirements other publications, publication standards and writing books have in order to insure the relevance of the published topics.

How to submit papers

If you wish your article to be assessed for publication by “Revista de Mediación” please send the following documents to the email revistademediacion@imotiva.es templates can be downloaded here.