As the end of the year draws near, I find myself reflecting on ‘Mediation Phobia’.

The following blog is based on these reflections. They are observations based on some of the fears and resistance I have encountered during 2014.

This ‘fear of mediation’ has typically presented itself within the context of workplace conflict.

Fear of mediation

At times, and with best intentions, team and HR managers have called for mediation without knowledge or consideration of alternate (and perhaps more appropriate) interventions. In some circumstances this has created a genuine fear or resistance to mediation within the minds of the people involved.

To assess whether a matter is suitable for mediation I like to ensure that I have the opportunity to meet with conflicting parties separately, at least a few days before the designated mediation day.

Most of the time, people either embrace the idea of mediation, or come around to accepting it as the logical next step to discuss and resolve their concerns.

However, this is not always the case. These initial meetings might need to be used to explore a person’s fears about the mediation process.

My Top Three Observed Mediation Fears

1. Fear of Terminology
An objection to a process that is called ‘mediation’.

2. Fear of Third-Party Involvement
A desire by one person to address their concerns directly with the other person, and to overcome any obstacles in the way of doing so.

3. Fear of Confrontation
A person who strongly feels the need to work on their own approach to conflict, rather than be put into a room with the other person.

Facing the Fear and Overcoming It

Fear of Terminology
Some people take issue with the term ‘mediation’. It is important for mediators and HR to be aware of this possibility when introducing and discussing process options.

This fear might relate to misinformation about the mediation process and misunderstanding about what it can achieve. This resistance can be effectively addressed by taking the time to deal with a person’s concerns and to manage their expectations about the process.

Where this does not adequately address concerns I have often looked at changing the terminology to reflect the needs and goals of those involved. A process that helps people to have a conversation does not need to be called mediation, especially if this does not help the people involved to have the conversation in the first place. Flexibility is key here. It could be that we get together for a ‘facilitated conversation’ or a ‘workshop’, an ‘assisted discussion’ or even a ‘problem solving session’. Together with the people involved, we can name and create a facilitated/assisted process that helps people to feel more comfortable.

Fear of Third-Party Involvement
In some workplaces people have not communicated well, and as a result they have been managed (or mismanaged) in a way that denies them the opportunity to discuss and resolve the issue. They have been instructed (again with best intentions) to stop emailing each other, to change desks, or to even change teams. Often when I have met with the people involved they have said things like:

“I just want to have a coffee with the other person but I don’t know where to start or what to say”.

“Things shouldn’t have gone this far. We just need to have a conversation”.

In these situations there may be a fear of third party involvement. Mediation may be seen as an unnecessary escalation of the issues, and as a roundabout way to have a straightforward conversation.

When I have come across this I have reverted to the same key principle mentioned above – flexibility. This is not about me getting my moment to mediate. It is about helping people to have the conversation that they need to have. In some cases I have been able to facilitate coffee arrangements and help each person (beforehand) to identify what they wish to communicate and how best to get their message across. They have then been able to drink their coffee, have their chat, and move forward with a better understanding of one another.

Fear of Confrontation
Not every situation is suitable for mediation. Some people are not ready to be in a room with the person they are in conflict with. Some people will find greater benefit from one-on-one support. This support might be available via an External Assistance Program (EAP) or via my involvement as a Conflict Management Coach. In situations like this I have been able to work with individuals via a series of sessions that help people to identify and explore new strategies for having difficult conversations (or conversations with difficult people).

The Take-Away Message for Organisations

Keep an open mind when someone comes to your office. Recognise that people in conflict may be fearful and resistant to the very processes that are designed to help them. Be open in the first instance to engaging an external consultant to undertake some form of conflict assessment or diagnosis. This will assist the people involved to find a form of assistance that makes them comfortable, and a process that best suits their problem.