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System Mediation

source: Sara Lambert

Mediation is when a neutral third party helps two or more conflicting groups to come to agreement. Another term for it is "assisted negotiation". If you are multiple, you may be constantly attempting (and failing!) to negotiate with each other as you face a constellation of differing opinions about everything from what clothes to wear in the morning to whether or not you should stay in therapy. Frequently, the therapist takes the role of mediator - but actually you can try this for yourselves within your system.

To set up a mediation session, you will need a reliable adult self who agrees to act as mediator. It is important to choose this person with care. Preferably, they should be fairly good at communication, listening, and even have some counselling knowledge (although this is not essential). They should be trusted by everyone who attends the session. And they should be neutral in the matter specifically, holding no allegiance to any one person/group, and willing to keep an open mind.

Once your mediator has been chosen, you bring the disputing parties "to the table." They must come voluntarily. They must have commitment to the letter and spirit of what you are trying to do. If they don't want to be there in the first place, they will not respect the process or abide to its conclusion. Before you formally meet, spend some time designing a safe space where everyone can comfortably be. Of course, this in itself may need mediation! Just keep it simple, and try to avoid anything that may trigger people, such as certain colors or a room that is too small. Mostly mediation sessions take place in the inner world, where you have freedom to create and furnish any space you like.

When you are all together, take a moment to appreciate what an amazing achievement that is - the first step towards confrontation, communication and co-operation is often the hardest and most frightening to make.

The first item on your agenda must be Ground Rules. It's vital that you state, and record for future reference, the things each of your require for safety and to assist you in talking and being heard. Without these, the session becomes an uncertain and even potentially unsafe place. People need to adhere to the rules and, if they persist in disobeying, they may in fact not be ready to come to the table. Typical ground rules include confidentiality (although don't go to the extent one multiple did, declaring to his therapist that he couldn't tell her the outcome of his inner group session because he was bound by a code of confidentiality!) ... one person speaks at a time ... no physically or verbally attacks ... and so on. People may need to be quite tolerant of selves with special needs or who are emotionally distressed or fragile. If children attend, they may want an older self to be their spokesperson. As you need to record ground rules, you may wish to nominate one person to be secretary and take down notes during the meeting. (Another person may want to be in charge of watching the clock if you only have a limited amount of time.)

Following the setting of ground rules, you should discuss what the issues are that have brought you to mediation. Write these down as they are raised. Everyone should have the chance to state their perspective or stance on the matter at hand, without being argued against at this point or shouted down. Even if someone has an issue that no one else thinks is important or relevant, it is to that person, and so must be addressed. It is also helpful at this stage to find out from people want they want to achieve from mediation and, again, personal perspectives are each as valid as the other.

Discussing the various issues and opinions may take some time. It's important to let this happen and not get into problem-solving until everyone has had a chance to say everything they want about where they're coming from. The discussion may get to a point where it feels entirely chaotic and emotional, and some people may fear they are getting nowhere except round in circles. However, everything said is useful information for the mediator and other participants and gradually the process will wind itself down to a place where people feel they have covered all their relevant feelings and opinions and they're ready to move on to looking at some solutions.

At this point, the mediator helps the participants sift through their various issues and consider the best ways of achieving a solution that benefits, at least to some degree, all parties. It is helpful here to acknowledge and respect the different skills and specialist information each person can bring to the discussion. Multiples generally segment their abilities and perspectives into individual selves, so by bringing them all together you can create a more comprehensive picture of matters. It must be noted that the problem-solving phase will not work if people are unwilling to move away from their position and agree on some compromises. Often, this depends on timing. For some people, it may be too early for them to feel safe about leaving their trench; for others, it may be too late. If compromise can not be reached, perhaps the session needs to be rescheduled for further down the track.

Don't be disappointed if you fail to resolve a dispute at your first attempt. Successful mediation does not always mean that you reach a perfect final agreement. It can also mean that you get a better clarity about the important issues for all concerned. You may need to go away and think more about these issues, get some extra information from different places, and consult with other sources, before coming back a few days or weeks later to have another go at it. The success may also lie in simply in the fact that a number of you have got together with the common goal of trying to improve the situation of the entire system. That in itself is a huge step forward. After all, communication needs to start somewhere.

Also remember that probably none of you are experts at this. Your mediator has not done any formal training in the area of negotiation and group facilitation. You may have never before confronted the conflicts you have with each other. For the first couple of sessions, you may make a horrible mess of the whole thing and end up having it dissolve into a screaming match. But the fact that you have tried gives tremendous hope. It shows that you want to co-operate with each other - even if your motives are initially quite self-centered - eg, you want mediation so you can convince everyone else that you should get more body time.

With the spirit of co-operation and the promise of teamwork at whatever level, you can go far.

Copyright © Sara Lambert
Originally published in Team Spirit
Reprinted With Permission