The key to developing true mediation competency:
In addition to skills training in mediation, what do mediators need to improve their mediation competency? While mediation skills training remain essential to the practice of mediation, the key to developing mediation competency begins with self-reflection and self-management. Before we can effectively assist those in conflict, we must first look inward to better understand our own emotional competency and the impact we have on others around the mediation table. Developing mediation competency is truly a life-long journey of self-development that begins with “me”.
So began my conversation this past summer in Vienna with my friend and colleague Dr Mario Patera of Konflikkultur in Vienna, as we reconnected to reflect on mediation training during the pandemic.
We began with the observation that all mediators should understand that as facilitators of the negotiation process, we introduce ourselves into the conflict. With that introduction comes our own unique personality, emotions, and life experiences, including biases. It’s this constellation of individual characteristics and skills that makes each of us unique and why mediation at its core is truly an exercise in personal service.
Yet Dr Patera and I lamented that most mediators looking to improve their mediation competency, and therefore many training courses, are quick to focus on specific skill development, ignoring completely the critical need for self-reflection and self-management as a precursor to effectively assisting those in conflict. Simply stated, self-management remains a professional blind spot for many mediators who eschew the need for and the effort required to effectively manage themselves as an integral part of the mediation process. Dr Patera concluded that it’s incumbent on those seeking to develop mediation competencies to begin by looking inward and committing to a journey of self- development. I summarized our conversation with the somewhat counter intuitive observation that mediation begins with “me”.
What do I mean by self-management and what do mediators need to understand about themselves before effectively engaging with others? Before answering the question of what self-management is, it’s important to distinguish what it is not. Often self-management training in the business world focuses on time management and how to increase productivity. In contrast, the discussion of self-management by mediators is less about efficiency and more about effectiveness. It’s less about acquiring specific skills and more about developing social competencies. In fact, describing the process as self-management training does an injustice to the level of commitment and lifelong journey required for self-development.
What then is self-management, and why is it an essential first step in developing mediation competency? Ancient Greeks emphasized three aspects of the human experience: the mind, the body, and the spirit. This time-honored perspective provides a valuable template for examining self-management and its goal of developing mediation competency. Specifically, we should envision a triangle with each side reflecting a different focus of self-management: self-management of the mind, self-management of the body and self-management of the spirit (emotions). A deeper understanding and self-mastery of these focuses of self-management should become the taproot of all future learning.
Self-Management of the Mind
Over the course of my teaching career, I’ve coined the term Mediator’s Mind™ to describe the mental model we create for ourselves that defines our approach to mediation and shapes our every intervention in the conflict environment. Self-management of the mind begins with self-reflection and developing a strong vision of how we see our role in mediation. This mental model will become a mediator’s North Star that can be returned to time and again during difficult moments in mediation.
I’ve also described our journey through life as an exercise in focused attention. Yet we know from brain research that at any given moment, we only commit a fraction of our available attention to the task at hand. Similarly, we know from our own everyday experience that the constant white noise of our internal conversation, at best, distracts us from devoting full attention to communicating effectively with others. Self-management of the mind thus begins with sharpening our ability to focus and using our internal voice productively while engaging others in conversation.
More recently, we have developed a deeper appreciation for the role that cognitive and emotional biases play in our ability to perceive the environment clearly and communicate effectively with others. Effective self-management of the mind begins with understanding our own biases and how to account for them as we intervene with others in mediation.
Self-Management of the Body
As mediators, we know the importance of nonverbal communication and pay as much attention to physical cues as we do the spoken word. Yet, how many mediators take the time to hold up the mirror of self-reflection and examine their own body’s cues and role in mediation? How many are aware of their own internal signals? There is a term in psychology, somatic markers, which refers to our physical responses to external stimuli, often stressors in our environment. An example is when you open your email server and just seeing a sender’s name causes your stomach to turn or your jaw to clench. In mediation, how many times have you paused before walking into a private conversation with one party, only to observe a tightness in your chest or some other physical manifestation of stress? Learning to pay attention to these important signals our bodies send us is the first step to self-management of the body.
Equally important is mastering our own body language. The recent trend toward online dispute resolution and the forced marriage between mediation and technology has offered an unparalleled opportunity for self-management of the body. Spending eight hours a day on a computer screen provides the opportunity to observe yourself in the moment. We have never had a better chance to witness and become aware of our body language, including subtle facial expressions, as we communicate with others.
Finally, the physical demands of mediation remain a blind spot for many. Preparing for and navigating the physical needs of full-time conflict resolution mirrors the training required of a high-level athlete. Rest, nutrition, and stamina are all part of the self-management conversation.
Self-Management of the Spirit (Emotions)
Self-management of the spirit entails developing emotional intelligence, defined as the ability to perceive, understand, and manage emotions. The journey toward expanding one’s emotional intelligence has been, metaphorically speaking, equated to exercising and strengthening one’s emotional muscle. And the first step toward developing one’s emotional muscle is self-assessment, evaluating what shape you are in and acknowledging your baseline for expanding your emotional capacity.
To assist this capacity building, we begin our training by encouraging students to engage in reflective exercises to understand and appreciate how one’s immediate family members influenced their emotional development. We also train them to use positive and negative scales to rate their current feelings. These exercises help mediators learn to attend to their own emotional state while better understanding the opportunity for developing a higher level of emotional competency.
Self-management of one’s emotional well-being also includes self-care and self-compassion. It’s paradoxical that many of us are drawn to this profession by a profound need to assist others, and doing so effectively requires extraordinary amounts of empathy and compassion. Yet when the mirror is reflected inward, we find an industry-wide epidemic of compassion fatigue and burnout caused by an inability to access the same degree of self-compassion as one has available for others. Simply put, one cannot continuously work close to the flame of high emotions without giving equal attention to one’s own well-being.
The journey toward mediation competency, one which effortlessly demonstrates valuable skills and techniques in the presence of strong emotions, begins with a commitment to honest self-reflection and thoughtful self-management focused on mind, body, and spirit (emotions). Yet the noble goals of achieving the highest levels of emotional intelligence and social competencies will not come from books, blogs, or webinars. Instead, they will evolve only from a lifelong commitment to self-reflection and personal development. These are not easy lessons yet they must be the first steps taken along the journey of preparing ourselves to help others. For those mediators willing to make this commitment, it will lead to impressive mediation skills and a higher quality of life. It’s why we need to remind ourselves that the road to mediation competency begins with “me”.