Backing for the Battle-Weary

12th October 2018

As Mediation Awareness Week (6-12 October) draws to a close, Lisa Botwright learns more about the work of a Hertfordshire organisation, currently celebrating its twentieth birthday, which was launched to support people in the community experiencing conflict…

“Whenever humans come into contact there’s potential for dispute,” offers Victoria Harris, CEO at Mediation Hertfordshire, a not-for-profit organisation that helps individuals and businesses who are experiencing conflict. While facilitating the relationship between estranged couples is mediation’s most well-known incarnation, Victoria co-ordinates a whole team of volunteers ready to step in and help people overcome their antipathy towards their neighbours, their colleaguess and even the classroom bully. Mediation can help people work towards a peaceable solution in all aspects of family, community and workplace strife. It even helps children; one of Mediation Hertfordshire’s latest projects is to visit schools, with a view to building emotional intelligence and teaching strategies for healthy communication.

The dictionary describes conflict as ‘a serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one’ – a narrow definition that fails to convey its potential for intense distress. While differences of opinion are a normal and natural part of human interaction (just ask my husband…) and will ideally mean a productive, if heated, exchange of opinion, conflict can only too readily escalate into something much more explosive or oppressive. “Anyone who has ever experienced a dispute will understand its effect on physical and emotional wellbeing,” Victoria says, identifying that it can impact both individuals and whole communities.

My neighbours are lovely; I can only imagine how distressing it must be when your home is no longer your sanctuary… when you fear bumping into the aggressive bloke from next door who throws rubbish into your garden, for example, or when you can’t sleep at night because the couple in the flat above operate on different timescales to you, and like to play loud music at 3am. Equally, how debilitating to have to worry about going in to work every day, fearful of standing up to an intimidating boss with unreasonable demands.

“When we’re in dispute we make assumptions about what the other party is thinking, which creates a ‘conflict spiral’ that gets bigger and bigger,” Victoria explains. “Both parties become ever more more polarised and entrenched in positions that demonise the other party. Mediators help people reframe this.”

As a practising solicitor for 15 years, Victoria was always looking for a way to resolve disputes within the confines of legal process: she recognised, she says, “the emotional as well as the financial costs of conflict” – and began working for Mediation Hertfordshire as a volunteer in 2014, before being invited to lead it two years later. Her day-to-day work requires an ongoing tenacious drive to tap into sources of revenue to keep the service free and readily accessible – “I’m constantly working to find funding,” she tells me – and co-ordinating the 47-strong volunteer group.

The mediators who give their time and expertise for free are trained professionals from a variety of backgrounds: police, law, education, counselling – there’s even a former hostage negotiator on the books, I’m told. “When I first joined, I felt really humbled working with volunteers for whom service is its own reward,” Victoria says endearingly.

The organisation doesn’t actually offer mediation training, but does provide support and professional development to its volunteers. If you’ve got the right aptitude and experience, it’s a relatively speedy process to gain accreditation as a mediator (a quick online search reveals many different providers advertising various five day courses). “We try and match the mediator to the case, but they all have generic skills from their training,” Victoria explains.

Phil Cockcroft is a retired businessman who made the sideways move into mediation after a period volunteering for a ‘restorative justice’ charity that helped victims to meet or communicate with their offender to explain the impact of the crime. He went on to train as a commercial mediator with a view to possibly earning money (“it never happened,” he laughs) and now works on community and family cases giving people “an environment in which they can talk and be safe”. In his experience, “there are too many ‘what ifs?’… People are always double guessing. I might say, what do your neighbours think? What does the mother of your child think? But they don’t know because they haven’t talked to them.” Nonetheless, he’s hugely sympathetic to the reasons behind these crises of communication. He believes people often feel “too vulnerable explain how they feel,” or are simply unable to articulate their unhappiness. He also finds that people “don’t know where to turn,” since legal advice can be prohibitively expensive and friends too emotionally invested to be objective. His role sounds incredibly rewarding, and although he’s unable to share specific details with me (all cases are dealt with in the strictest confidence), he does confide that he’s been in situations where people have ended up kissing each other and crying at the end. “Mediation,” he says, “is highly underrated.”

A fifth of cases are self-referred via the Mediation Herts website, and the rest are referrals from various agencies, including the Citizens Advice Bureau and local authority departments, such as Housing.“We contact the other party to ask if they’d be willing to meet with a mediator to hear more about the process and explain their experience of the dispute,” Victoria tells me. “We don’t say ‘would you like mediation?’, as we feel this is too much to take in at that stage.” If they agree, there’ll be an initial meeting in each person’s home: “an opportunity to tell their story and consider the options.” If it gets this far, over 80% will decide to move forward to a joint meeting in a neutral venue. “We do everything we can to fit it into people’s lives; we check availability for all parties and look at individual needs.” The organisation has an impressive database of suitable venues to call upon, from community centres to business centres.

At the joint meeting, the mediator’s first job to make everyone feel safe. I imagine it must feel very daunting seeing the person you’re in conflict with across the table, and Victoria agrees that there’s a lot of “high emotion”. She goes on to explain that mediators use strategies such as a staggered arrival time to overcome this. Initially, strict ground rules are put in place – no swearing, and no speaking over the other person – and then each party has the opportunity to express their feelings, which Victoria reflects can be “transformative.”

Mediation helps parties to find their own solutions, in contrast with litigation, when a ‘solution’ will be imposed by a judge. “Take the example of a damaged fence,” says Victoria. “A judge would order monetary compensation, but actually you might just want an apology and help fixing the fence. Sometimes people just need to be heard, and this has value in itself.”

On occasion, the other side declines the offer of mediation, and the organisation has set up a new service – conflict coaching – that enables the person making the request to be heard and supported in isolation. “If one party refuses to engage in the mediation process, the other party can be left feeling high and dry; we help them through this difficult time.”

There are many different kinds of disputes, just as there are many different types of personalities. Some people thrive on conflict, whereas others do all they can to avoid it. Natural communicators are at ease with expressing their emotions, while many people are just more reserved; others still, because of a lack of appropriate role models, or through mental ill-health, for example, don’t have the tools to deal with their anger or frustration. Conflict resolution is a life skill that doesn’t come naturally to everyone – but which almost everyone will need at some point. When relationships break down, mediation aims to level the playing field so that everyone affected can meet on equal terms and have their feelings acknowledged in a respectful, productive environment.

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