What do you find to be the most challenging or stressful aspect of your mediation practice and how do you manage it?
These days I have to say I don't have much stress from my mediation practice. However, as a neophyte practitioner and for a number of years after I started my mediation career I certainly encountered many challenges. I lacked confidence and sufficient ways to manage the process when it seemed to be going off the rails, or unruly disputants dominated the forum, or lawyers tried to sabotage the meetings. At those times, I would feel the tension and agonize afterwards about what I 'should' have done! These situations all proved to be great learning opportunities in the end. But, at the time they were certainly challenging.
So, though I didn’t always manage the stressors well, I remained conscious of taking care of myself with exercise and various fun and interesting hobbies and time with family and friends.
Ultimately, when I went through experiences such as this, I began connecting with a few colleagues to discuss the situations and get their input. I became a big believer in seeking peer input and supporting others who struggle with the stresses of helping people find their way through conflict. Initially though, I think I was afraid of being vulnerable with colleagues. That was until I realized it was a way for me to learn and grow and develop my practice – and that others wanted some support with their challenges too. If I encounter challenges in my practice now I would still connect with the same colleagues. I do more conflict management coaching than mediation these days, and I have to admit I do not find coaching stressful. Having said that if anything isn't quite working for me in the coaching dynamic I contact a member of my coaching peer group who coaches me through it. My previous experiences taught me this lesson- about reaching out to others and being there for them, too.
Is there any particular activity that you engage in outside of practice that you find helps you unwind or otherwise supports your wellness as a mediator?
Not one only! I practice mindful awareness – by meditating everyday - and have done so for many years. I am also physically active - walk at least 4-5 miles a day, and teach a weekly dance-fit class and a balance class (requiring practice too). I ‘give back’ in a number of ways and I have a number of interests that keep fun in my life and people around me whom I love.
What aspect of mediating poses the greatest obstacles for your own health and well-being? Do you have any strategies to manage this?
I think I have partially answered this in the first point. However, I will add that the greatest obstacles were typically ones I imposed on myself by taking on too much work at times and not setting boundaries. I find the work so interesting and yet, I admittedly have had trouble saying no. That meant I would end up overtired, not exercising and stretched beyond what is healthy. I have worked on this over time and now, I am more discerning about cases I take on and refer work to others.
Do you have any advice for fellow or aspiring mediators in terms of developing strategies to preserve good mental health?
I think it's so great that you are addressing this topic in your interview!
You know how they say on airplanes regarding the oxygen masks- to put one on yourself before helping another? I think that applies to what conflict practitioners need to do, too. It’s hard work that we do, and we are privileged that disputants come to us with their conflicts. They expect us to help them through the chaos and it’s on us to give them the best version of ourselves. That requires our presence, stability, and other aspects of good mental health! I think we all come at this differently; but, acknowledging this is likely a starting point.
As for other advice, I suggest conflict practitioners become part of a peer support group (organizing one if none around) and join organizations for networking purposes (and to find peers and senior practitioners to consult). Getting a coach is also an option and a therapist if depression, compassion fatigue or other negative impacts are evident. Outside of those ideas I suggest being purposeful about getting or keeping up interests outside of work. Practising mindful awareness (meditating) and fostering positive energy - in whatever form they take - is critical.
One more thing. I think caring about our health and well being requires us to take a long, hard look at ourselves - and ask important questions about our individual purposes. Besides asking ‘what is my purpose- what do I want to achieve?’ then, other questions may be something like: ‘am I doing the work I love- and if not how come?’ ‘if I am not living the life I want what does that preferred life look like – and how might I make that happen?’ ‘am I serving my clients well and if not, what’s precluding that?’ ‘am I living to my potential and if not, what am I not doing?’
Questions will vary for each of us, of course - there are so many more to consider. But, in any case, I think we all have questions that , as the poet David Whyte says, have 'no right to go away'. I, myself, am a work in progress 😊. I don't always have clarity on the questions or the answers; but, the ongoing inquiry keeps me true to myself.
Oh - and there is one more thing I’d like to mention. As I see it, most mediation training does not include reflective practice as an integral part of becoming a mediator and continuing to be a self aware practitioner. I expect that if training and educational courses in ADR would make reflective practice a requirement of learning that practitioners would come to know themselves better, and be better prepared to deal with the vicissitudes of working in the conflict field. (In my experience, one of the most enlightening aspects of my coach training was that it’s a field of study that is about reflective practice. I have to admit that once I took that training- which includes having a coach- I had some huge insights about who and how I wanted to be in my personal and professional life. Coaching and coach training totally changed how I approach my work as a mediator and coach myself. That is, I am more self aware and better able to take care of myself and who I am in the dynamics (of coaching and mediation) as to serve my clients better.)
Is there anything you do in preparing to mediate or coach to safeguard your health and well being?
I find being and feeling optimistic and positive - and showing up with that frame of mind is important. So, I consider my mindset when I am going to be mediating or coaching on any given day and whether I am authentically in a frame of mind that will bring, to the forum, an attitude that will instil positivity. If not, I might listen to music I love, speak to a good friend, have a brief meditation before I go to the meetings, watch a funny video of a favourite comedian.
I don’t expect I need add that overall care-taking – eating and sleeping well, exercising, having fun and close relationships etc. are important to help maintain continuing health and well being.
Mediators often work with parties who have intense emotions that surface in the course of a mediation. How do you do draw the line between empathizing and not letting yourself get caught up in emotion at the negotiation table?
Intense emotions used to have a huge adverse impact on my well being especially when I was doing family mediation. It’s really such a great skill to be able to empathize and not get caught up in the emotions around us. I had trouble with that at times going back to my first career as a social worker (before I went into law). Over time I learned how to draw the line. But not till after I had taken too much home with me and realized I was absorbed in others’ dramas and really making myself a part of it instead of outside of it. Through social work supervision -which is something else we don’t have a lot of as part of post mediation training – I learned so much about my tendency, at that time, to be a ‘rescuer’ and how it made it difficult to effectively serve my clients.
I don’t know that I can articulate just what shifted me to be able to better manage these situations either when I became a lawyer and then, as a mediator. I drew on my previous lessons as a social worker and though I didn’t see myself as a rescuer any more, I still found I would get caught up in the parties’ emotions to some extent. Somewhere along the way though, I became better able to set boundaries and distance myself from the intensity. I expect it was in part, through being honest with myself and my peer group about the vulnerability I was feeling. Hearing their stories and realizing I was not alone in my experiences helped. Together we considered possible strategies for drawing the line while considering what it was that triggered our individual reactions.
Generally speaking, we are really not trained well to deal with the range of emotions that come before us as mediators. Nor, do we necessarily learn to be able to draw that line you asked about. What we do know is that amount of emotion our clients experience reflects their pain and how important certain issues are to them. While it’s hard to keep perspective at these times or expect they will, maybe we need to be caught up in it - when we are not able to distance ourselves from the fray - to be able to learn how and when and from whom to get some input and help.
That is, just as we say there is opportunity to be found in conflict, for the disputants, I am thinking it’s important to consider there is opportunity for us to learn from the experience of getting caught up in their emotions.
To learn more about Cinnie's practice, visit CINERGY Conflict Management.
interview conducted February 2019