Mediator as settlement leader

If it is true that (in Europe) all roads lead to Rome then might it also be true that in commercial mediation all Mediators ‘lead’ to Settlement? Frivolity aside, the idea of a mediator ‘leading’ parties to a settlement might be unsettlingly too directive in style for many. However, the mediator in reality does guide parties on a path to build their own workable agreement. Yet the leadership aspect of the mediator’s role does not receive much attention.

The fact that the role of Mediator as Settlement Leader is almost never considered directly is even more surprising when one considers the overwhelming amount of writing and theory on what makes a good leader. For a start, one might look at Facilitative versus Evaluative styles for mediators – which can apply as much to what the mediator does with the content in the mediation as to how the mediator runs the process. Compare this style choice with the different styles of leadership noted in the Tannenbaum Schmidt Leadership Continuum (a classic piece of Leadership Theory from 1957) ranging from options of abdicating or delegating to directing and guiding.

The reality is that, like good leaders, mediators need to take differing roles at different times within the lifecycle of a mediation. While there is best practice in what should be happening at different stages, the competent mediator will be utilising different styles throughout, with regard to managing the process and the content (although as a style ”Authoritarian” would obviously be a step too far!).

As someone who has been a leader myself for a number of decades, I am increasingly aware of the overlap, looking at both how the leader can influence and control not only performance but also conflict in different ways. As a mediator one can see when it comes to steering the process how important these skills can be. For example, having executive oversight of operational blockages on the day (such as needing to call a remote stakeholder) while offering vision and direction about how to hold discussions and refashion a narrative when there are rivals competing to tell their story. The mediator as ‘leader’ can also support less vocal members of the team in speaking up to ensure consideration of all relevant but diverse viewpoints.

In the coming weeks and months I think that all those involved in mediation would profit from thinking more about the mediator as their settlement leader. For the mediators this perception should empower individuals to look at their own preferences and what potential solutions to deadlock trying different techniques might offer. Most importantly for the users of mediation thinking about your mediator as an invested Sherpa, assisting your party on the climb to the summit of agreement, may allow you to invest greater confidence in the mediator which in turn can unlock more potential for the mediator to help drive the process to a desirable destination.

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