Tag Archives: mediation


Toxicity: Systems that get us Down

While I firmly believe in the mediation process – whether in workplace, community or international contexts – there are times, especially at the micro-level, when I fear it can amount to a mere sticky plaster placed over a sore. This is particularly the case where conflict is rooted in deep systems of communication, structure and processes that underlay the conflict. While these remain intact and unchallenged, mediation – even if successful at a certain level – can be just a moment in the recurring cycle. Like a perverse Jesus, the conflict will rise again. Interpersonal spats over different styles of communication, varying perspectives and misunderstanding can effectively be addressed by mediation. But when these spats are surface indicators of something unhealthy built into ‘the way it is done here’, then something more may be needed than addressing interpersonal concerns: at the very least an effective mediation process must include space for addressing systemic change.

Speaking to the working environment, the European Agency for Health and Safety at Work defines stress this way: ‘Work-related stress is experienced when the demands of the work environment exceed the employees’ ability to cope with (or control) them.’

The various demands on workers become toxic at that point where the worker’s wellbeing is significantly undermined. Some different toxicities that mediation may need to address include:

1. Poor systems of internal communication: a lack of direct and clear communication, often substituted by emails, or even expectations that ‘they should know this’. Of course much of workplace communication sometimes lacks mutuality – effective feedback systems from workers to management. Rather there are directives or ‘non-sultation’ rather than consultation around decisions that have an impact on the whole workforce. Sometimes just being consulted and having a view heard or valued is sufficient to relieve stress, even when decisions are made that fall short of an employee’s ideal.

2. Target cultures that focus on performance against targets at the expense of realistic capacities of individuals to deliver. One friend of mine was presented with a list of annual targets for his work. These had been developed independent of any conversation with him. He said ‘I will deliver these but it is going to hurt my health and home life! I don’t want to be seen to be failing.’

3. Equally unwholesome discourses about success. The comment from my friend ‘ I don’t want to be seen as a failure’ says much. Do we esteem ourselves as valuable because we are judged so against what may be unrealizable targets? This is not to say that we should not be stretched at work. Of course we should be! Work, at its best, contributes to our development and growth. But when expectations run counter to the wellbeing of a given worker because they are based on targets agreed in an ivory tower or without conversation with those responsible for delivering the work.

The list above certainly does not exhaust the potential toxicities thriving in work environments. But when these toxic features are not addressed at their roots and displaced by more wholesome narratives the potential for conflict remains high – as does the potential for health threatening stress levels leading to burn-out, sick leave, and debilitating lace of morale.

One other toxicity worth mention is the worker’s own narrative regarding their power to provoke change. Another individual I know was increasingly depressed at the lack of support from her managers, their sometime dismissive – if not downright patronizing – style of communication, and the lack of transparency regarding decision-making. This feeling was widely shared within the office to the detriment of morale and commitment to work. Many of her colleagues simply succumbed to ‘the way things work here’ and contented themselves with unhappy mumbles, not caring too much about the quality of their work and, as opportunity permitted, looking for work elsewhere.

Rather than succumb to the negative energy she took the bull by the horns and directly raised these issues with her own line manager. She did this a number of times, always clear but also empathetic with the pressures on managers. Gradually a different style of communication coming from management emerged. It was not perfect but tended more in the direction of respect, consultation and even affirmation. Some of the unwholesome metanarratives affecting the working environment, beyond the control of local managers to effect, certainly remained as background music. (Other interventions are called for at that level) But my friend was able to take power in her own hands and shape, however minimally’ a more humane working relationship with managers.

While it is the larger metanarratives that often contribute toxins into the workplace, in the immediate context we can assert power for positive change in some of those systems that get us down.

Non Anxious Presence 1

Something ‘Touchy-Feely’ for the Office: The Non-Anxious Presence

I have written previously about planks in a preventive approach to workplace conflict. Shortly I will be writing about the costs of allowing conflict to escalate and the costs and benefits of soft processes like mediation. But now for something ‘touchy feely’. (I know how well that stuff goes down with managers!)

Many of the conflicts in which I have been invited to intervene have entailed massive degrees of reactivity on the parts of key players. This has often proceeded from insecurities and anxiety around role clarity, status and perceived threats to a sense of self-esteema and competence. Within this cocktail of reactivity it may take only one player to have the capacity to stand back, take stock and bring a different quality of presence to the situation. Managers may be effective key persons modelling this kind of ‘non-anxious presence’ amid office or workplace battles.

The phrase ‘non-anxious presence’ is a phrase used to connote the quality of this connection with others. This kind of presence is, ideally, free of pre-occupations with our own anxieties (e.g. about what to say next, etc), distracting trends of thought that call us away from the present moment, or crippling resonances of past experience evoked by the present situation or self-interested agendas. Of course anxieties are augmented all the more in situations of conflict, especially when they entail a perceived threat to one’s power, status or sense of competence.

While a ‘non-anxious presence’ is not overcome by any of the above-mentioned dynamics, it is still mindful of them, as they will make up the sometimes very loud background music. We remain mindful of their dynamics and power for disruption. In a word, to be ‘non-anxiously’ present is to allow the intention to be present to others to override any inner turmoil that may be around. This may be immensely challenging in a conflict situation, especially for the parties involved. A key building block enabling this ability to bracket turmoil, while remaining mindful of it’s stirring, is emotional maturity. The capacity for a non anxious presence rooted in emotional maturity serves all of us well, especially in people management roles or as third parties supporting individuals in the heat of conflict.

The development and nurture of emotional maturity has been a key plank in my own work with people over the years. Whether as a trainer or mediator, I have sought to assist the growth of self-awareness alongside technical skills for engaging with conflict. Emotional maturity in the sense I understand it is a capacity to be deeply aware of and name one’s feelings and connect with one’s own thoughts and body. It entails a capability for being earthed in the present moment. Perhaps emotional maturity should by definition comprise part of the person spec for anyone in a ‘people management’ role along side other competencies.

Louise Gold writes about the healing dimension of mediation and proposes ‘presence’ as an integral quality of the mediator. She defines ‘presence’ in terms of centeredness, a conscious connection to one’s deepest values and beliefs, connectedness to the other’s humanity and being congruent, i.e. doing what you are and being what you do. Where this quality of presence obtains, there is also a commitment to our own and the other person’s wellbeing, the mindful awareness of what is going on for both of us while disentangling our own baggage from what belongs to someone else and an ability to sit in the storm of a conflict without losing connection with the calm centre.

The more we cultivate this kind of self-awareness, the more we will be able to bring that quality of presence to the full repertoire of interactions with those around us, friend, family and ‘foe’ alike. Also there is a difference between ‘non-anxious’ presence and being free of anxiety. As a friend recently put it, it is ‘to be anxious but not be anxious about being anxious’. Here anxiousness becomes part of the mindful energy that helps us contribute to the wellbeing of our social worlds.

This may all sound touch feely but I believe that the development of this ‘soft skill’ for managers – and any employee – can prevent some hard consequences both in human and financial costs.

human labour

Conflict ‘Provention’ in the Workplace

Some years ago, John Burton in his book, Conflict: Resolution and Provention’ addresses intractable conflicts on the international stage. He coined the term ‘conflict provention’, which he proposes as an approach to conflict resolution that is based on human needs theory. He noted the broad failure of traditional techniques of social control and enforced resolutions to provoke significant change in arenas of conflict. By ‘provention’ Burton means proactively addressing through structural and dialogical means, the bedrock human needs that remain unsatisfied in the conflict situation, with a view to preventing conflicts from arising.

There is also learning here for conflict resolution in the work place. I was talking to a friend a few days ago who was describing some of the targets that had been set for him regarding a project he was managing. He commented that the targets were highly impractical in terms of the projected time frame and had clearly been determined by funding and local authority agendas. They reflected perfectly the ethos of ‘Performance Management’, which focuses on targets more than the worker delivering the service. The targets are often designed without any reference to the wellbeing of the worker, however worthwhile those targets might be. (Who would not want to see a major children’s event come off successfully, or a range of supportive services delivered in deprived areas of a community?) But where the targets, in their cumulative form, are out of sync with the ‘human resources’ for delivering them, we set the workers up for failure and burnout and generate conditions for workplace conflict. (By the way, I dislike the term ‘human resources’. There is something cold in it that reduces the human worker to a factor of production or a cog in the machine.)

One important ‘proventive’ factor that might usefully be built into a company, agency or business’s approach to work includes a more humane way of setting targets for the workforce. Teachers, social workers and professionals across statutory and private sectors lose many good people through burnout and stress and no doubt often create conditions rife with conflict. (My friend tells me he will deliver the targets but at the cost of his own wellbeing and, perhaps, the wellbeing of his household. He does not want to be seen as ‘a failure’.)

Of course a realistic regard for one’s market and the ‘mission’ of one’s business or agency are important factors in a larger business plan. I am not suggesting that we disregard these but only that something else is needed to humanise the equation. Setting targets should include an evaluation of market concerns, service delivery and the potential impact on the wellbeing of those delivering the service. This will entail a culture shift for many organisations. It also requires, in some context, collaboration – not to mention, creativity – at many levels: local delivery services, local authorities, and central government – and, for third sector agencies, private trust fund bodies. In the private sphere there will also be a number of stakeholders who need to be engaged in a ‘proventive’ strategy for approaching service delivery. This becomes more urgent especially in an atmosphere where cuts are being made and workers are required to pick up the slack in a reduced workforce.

Whether such a shift is likely in what is more and more a buyers’ market characterised by zero hour contracts, big bonuses for those profiting from increasing surplus value on labour, and workers desperate to keep or find jobs remains to be seen. But I suspect that when individual workers feel valued and have a stake in setting targets and agendas for their work they will have more energy, a sense of meaning and good will that will pay dividends in levels of productivity and morale.

Cats, Contemplatives and Mediators

In some ways my cat Freya possesses attributes that would make her an excellent mediator. There is the calming influence she exudes as she sits next to me on the couch. She listens and has an extraordinary ability to hear things. She will know well in advance that my wife or some other family member is approaching the front door or that someone is about to descend the stairs. She is always at the ready to greet and meet them with a welcoming chirrup.  Okay, perhaps the impression that she is actually ‘listening’ is slightly adrift. I am under no delusion that when I am speaking to her (as one does) that she is actually engaging. I suspect the mantra ‘food source, food source, food source’ more likely goes through her head at such times. In fact, in some ways, she is an appalling listener. ‘Freya, stop doing that!, ‘Freya, leave that alone!’ or ‘Freya, don’t do that inside the house!!’ etc. rarely meet with a positive response.  But, at the very least, her calming influence and attentiveness – if not obedience – do suggest positive examples for mediators or anyone interested in genuine and active listening.

Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, addressed a Synod of Roman Catholic Bishops. He spoke on the theme of contemplation and its importance in shaping the ethos of the inner person and just action in the world. (He cites the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonheoffer’s words written from a Nazi prison cell to the effect that we are called to ‘prayer and righteous action’.  He presents contemplation as something rather different from navel gazing and establishes it as an integral base for transforming action in the world.

While prayer and contemplative practice – or religion per se – may not be every mediator’s cup of tea, there is something to be said for a practice that sustains and develops the mediator or active listener’s skill and quality of presence.  (In fact, a friend of mind wrote his MA thesis on the connection between meditation and mediation a few years ago.) It is the presence’ of the helper, not merely their technical skills, that is key to effective mediation or support at times if crisis.

What is it to be present to someone else? Louise Gold, in her article ‘Influencing Unconscious Influences: The Healing Dimension of Mediation’ describes ‘presence’ in terms of the mediator’s centeredness (inner stillness and grounded quality), a connection with one’s own governing set of values and belief, a connection to the other person’s humanity, and congruency. The latter quality is about integrity and consistency: being what you do and doing what you are.

Whether one comes from a religious or secular perspective, meditative practice is potentially a great enabler for those who deem being fully present to others is important. In my own experience it is vital to my vocation as a priest and my work as a mediator. It is certainly crucial to any relationship we may value in our professional or personal lives. Developing your own personal discipline of meditation is well worth the bother and may prove transformational on all levels.

Now I must go and feed my cat.