I am delighted to have joined the panel of mediators at IPOS Mediation (formerly In Place of Strife). IPOS is one of the oldest and best-known mediation chambers in the UK, and arranges hundreds of mediations every year. About 20 years ago, I was lucky to meet Mark Jackson-Stops, who founded IPOS, and his passion for mediation was infectious. That meeting helped set me on the path which led me to become a mediator. Along the way, I was involved (as a solicitor) in a number of mediations, and it was the difficult ones which most caught my imagination.

In this blog, for the IPOS website, I explain why I trained as a mediator. The original text can be found here https://mediate.co.uk/blog/why-i-became-a-mediator/.

The young man sat oblivious, listening to the music pumping through his headphones. Nothing unusual about that – it’s a scene which plays out daily on public transport and in homes worldwide. But in this case, the young man was the principal complainant in a family argument, and that day he was one of many parties attending a mediation specifically convened to address his concerns.

Neither his lawyers, nor even the skilled mediator, could get him to engage in the process all day, so the parties went home without a ‘deal’. But they did learn a lot. First, the other parties took the opportunity to understand each other better. And second, everyone saw that the young man’s main grievance (whether he realised it or not) was that he needed attention. No-one had listened to him for years, and the disharmony wasn’t about the money; it was really the product of feeling unimportant. Those discoveries helped the parties to begin finding a way forward, even though the mediation itself hadn’t produced a solution.

That was just one of a number of mediations I attended as a solicitor, and one of the most important things I’ve learnt is that the indirect benefits of ‘failed’ mediations are just as fascinating as the successes.

The case for settling while you can

My 25-year career as a solicitor showed me that litigation is often terribly destructive – where can you go, after a process designed to prove one party right, and another wrong?  And when lawyers warn clients that their chances of success are 60/40, for example, it’s natural to hear the 60 and think that sounds positive. But what if it doesn’t go your way? Over the years, I saw many cases where I wished the parties could have settled on terms they were content with, rather than waiting for someone else to impose a result that might be devastating.

The first mediation I ever attended taught me this crucial second lesson. A frail old man had remarried, and shortly after died, leaving everything to his new widow. Did he have capacity to omit his much-loved children? Mediation failed because one party, determined to ‘win’, walked out once they had more detail on the other’s bottom line. I wished they had stayed, to see where the discussions could take them. And then they unexpectedly lost the case in one of those ‘bad days in court’ that can happen in litigation, but never in mediation.

Mediation and lateral thinking

Of course mediation is voluntary – you can’t force a party to want to settle. Parties may not agree to mediation. Sometimes it’s too early to mediate (but rarely too late). A party might, as with the old man’s dispute, attend mediation not intending to settle. Once they’re there, a skilled mediator may help them think differently, but sometimes participants do leave. Unsurprisingly, even the best mediators can’t work miracles in every case.

So why did observing ‘failure’ lead me to pursue a career in mediation? In every mediation that I attended I saw close at hand the critical role of the mediator, noting the skilled way they used their creativity and lateral thinking to help bring parties closer together. I found the mediation process utterly fascinating, inspiring and hopeful – what better reasons to want to be a mediator.

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Arabella Murphy