What do you find to be the most challenging or stressful aspect of your mediation practice and how do you manage it?
Even after over 20 years of practicing mediation, the most stressful aspect to me is to not take on responsibility for the outcome in terms of success or failure of the process, however you define these terms.
While we all subscribe to the ideas that “it is the parties that own the dispute” it is very easy to get caught up in the dynamics of the conflict.
I try to adopt the “first do not harm” approach from the Hippocratic Oath (or at least the 17th century version of it) as a way of being conscious of how I use (or not) my process skills and interventions in avoiding the trap of seeing everything in terms of outcome.
My responsibility is to help the parties by managing a good process, not be responsible for its substantive outcome, although that is sometimes easier to say than put in practice!
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?
Interacting with family, friends and colleagues.
Reading and mindfulness.
Other than the usual activities of daily life, I really do not have any specific activity that I can point towards.
I realize that I am grateful to work in this fascinating field and enjoy what I do.
What aspect of mediating poses the greatest obstacles for your own health and well being? Do you have any strategies to manage this?
The balance between empathy, sympathy, bias and neutrality. It is sometimes difficult not to identify with individuals in specific disputes and remain the third party “neutral.”
My main strategy is to always remain mindful of my role in the process while acknowledging that strong feelings and fears may be involved in any dispute; focusing on the interests that are below the surface.
Do you have any advice for fellow or aspiring mediators in terms of developing strategies to preserve good mental health?
I have dealt with my own serious health and depression issues in the past and the most important lesson I have learned is to listen to yourself.
We tend to label and define people by what they do instead of who they are, and that label becomes part of the story we tell ourselves. Don’t do this.
Re-frame how you view your work. It is a role, but you need to be able to step in and out of it.
If you work from a home office, as many of us do, have a definite transition between work and your daily life.
Be grateful for the opportunity to do good work and express that in a positive way.
Continue to learn about what we do.
Develop a collegial network of practitioners as a support group.
Become a reflective practitioner and challenge negative thoughts instead of dwelling on them.
If a mediation does not result in a positive outcome, whatever that might be, do not see yourself as responsible for a “failure”. That is most likely untrue, and definitely unproductive. Instead, think about what you might do differently the next time.
Otherwise, when the meditation is over - leave it behind.
Is there anything you do in preparing to mediate to safeguard your health and well being?
Hold a conference call with the parties or their lawyers a week or so ahead of the mediation to discuss the process. This usually allows me to access the level of the conflict.
Carefully review all materials received from the parties and their lawyers to take away the stress that comes with being unprepared.
Get a good night’s sleep.
Have you ever experienced an action by a party mediating that posed a risk to your physical or mental well being? If so, what did you do to protect yourself?
I have not had this experience in terms of my safety, although in one medition, a client made a credible threat of physical harm to his lawyer. I told the individual that I would advise his lawyer and did so.
Have you ever experienced compassion fatigue? If so, how have you dealt with it?
Yes, especially in my first few years of full-time practice when my work was in extremely high conflict disputes and I was dealing with my own personal issues.
We cannot be effective as mediators if we are indifferent to our client’s stories, while at the same time we cannot allow ourselves to go beyond empathy into sympathy and potential bias, as that overcomes our training and our role in the mediation process.
I try to mitigate this by practicing in several areas rather than one or two fields so that I have a mixture of conflict levels in my cases.
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?
I suppose I have answered that already but, to go a little further, I am uncomfortable with the idea that, as mediators, we should encourage “venting” of emotions as part of the process unless we are trained mental health professionals.
Any significant emotional expression, at least in the types of cases I usually work in, must be controlled or it will not help the parties or the process.
While encouraging frank discussion and acknowledging emotions, in joint session, I ask that the parties do so in a respectful way. In caucus, emotions can be more openly displayed, and I see my role to listen carefully and acknowledge the party.
I always keep in mind that empathy is not agreeing, and I cannot get caught up in the emotions as I owe a duty to all sides in a dispute.
I draw the line by confirming this with the individuals involved.
If the emotional heat becomes too much, take a break and re-group.
Remember that mediation is not therapy for the participants or the mediator.
To learn more about Colm's practice, visit Brannigan ADR.
interview conducted January 2020