Transformative Mediator Attitudes in Cases of Workplace Harassment

Wednesday, 25 November 2009, 20:02 | Category : Mediation, Training
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Unlike the mediation of business transactions which call for negotiating the needs and interests of parties to civil or commercial disputes, complaints of workplace harassment are not so much problems to be diagnosed and solved as relationships to be understood and repaired.

In cases of workplace harassment, the transformative mediation of relationship crises caused by hurts and misunderstandings aims to clarify and rehabilitate the relationships involved by reaching broader and deeper understandings of the situation. This is accomplished through the presentation and eventual cross-fertilization of diverging versions of the conflict.

To prepare themselves for this very different approach to mediation, transformative mediators must develop the appropriate attitudes for assuming a role quite different from that of mediators trained in problem-solving mediation models currently used in the business sector.


From the outset, the transformative mediator seeks to convey a constant attitude of kindly neutrality towards all parties, as much towards the alleged harasser as towards the purported victim. In a situation in which each party tends to severely judge the other, while in turn being judged by the other party and often by fellow co-workers,  a marked absence of judgment by the  mediator, coupled with empathetic curiosity,  allows the parties to have their say, listen to one another’s version, and make room for alternative interpretations of the situation.


The very notion of mediator competence has a different meaning here. Rather than presenting themselves as experts who know and tell, transformative mediators arrive as  guests of the parties involved, admit they are not all knowing, and listen to the details of the situation. Like polite guests, mediators do nothing without the express permission of the hosts. They set aside their personal or professional expectations of a particular result, letting the parties broach the situation in any way and in any order they see fit. At all times, mediators receive and welcome the parties not as they might wish them to be but as they actually are.


Rather than leap ahead of the parties to some all-encompassing explanation of ‘what is really going on,’ transformative mediators carefully maintain a micro-focus on what is actually being expressed by the parties from moment to moment. This micro-focus pays attention not only to the words and expressions used (‘content’), but also to the emotions expressed, or merely suggested by non-verbal or para-verbal behaviour (‘container.’) Neither leading nor getting ahead of the parties, mediators maintain their approach of ‘following the parties around’ while tracking the progress of the conversation in terms of dynamic cycles rather than linear progression. It is more about presence than performance.


Listening to the parties, mediators have two objectives in mind. As the details emerge, mediators are always on the lookout for opportunities for the parties to strengthen their capacity for self-determined action(“Empowerment,”) while taking into consideration aspects of the other party’s point of view(“Recognition.”). As opportunities of this nature appear, mediators must decide whether to question or highlight the possibility of moving progressively towards either of the two objectives, or, conversely, to abstain from comment and not interrupt the flow of conversation.


If the mediator should decide to intervene with a question or comment to underscore an opportunity for strengthening the parties’ capacity for self-determined  action (‘Empowerment’), the intervention can take more than one direction.  It can be to amplify the possiblity of achieving greater clarity of the parties’ objectives,  options, and resources,  or simply to invite them to take a step in that direction. If the mediator decides to highlight an opportunity to take the other party’s point of view into consideration (‘Recognition’),  again, there is a choice between a question or a reflection that either amplifies that possibility or invites them to take a step towards that objective.  In both cases, exhorting the parties either to achieve empowerment or to provide recognition is not an option: exhortation would lack respect for the free will, sovereignty, and dignity of the parties.


If Rome wasn’t built in a day, it was not rebuilt overnight either. Allowing parties in conflict to develop new perceptions of themselves and the other party is a task that requires skill, time, and patience.  It requires the mediator to begin by explaining to all parties the evolutionary nature of his or her mandate, each new step to be based on the informed consent of all parties before moving ahead. An interval of several days between mediation sessions has been found helpful to permit parties to reflect, to consult if need be, and to move towards new understandings at their own pace. When hurt feelings are involved, things cannot be pushed: parties need to ‘sleep on it’. Rather than a blitz of activity aimed at achieving rapid settlement at any cost, the picture here might be of the steady, dependable tortoise, encouraging participants to deliberate freely and reach informed decisions at every step, through a gradual change in the quality of party interaction.


We have seen that the attitudes of empathy, humility, and presence on the one hand, and of discernment, respect, and patience on the other, combine to characterize the transformative mediators’ optimal conduct in cases of workplace harassment.  These attitudes should be made apparent from the outset in the initial contacts with the employer and/or the union, in preliminary meetings with the parties individually, in joint sessions, in caucus, in individual telephone coaching sessions between sessions, right up to the drafting of an eventual summary of agreements and joint communiqué.

From Mediating Cases of Workplace Harassment: A Transformative Approach. © John Peter Weldon 2009

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