BLOG: How mediation can support collaboration

In February’s P4P blog, May Millward from Scottish Mediation discusses how mediation could benefit partner organisations to resolve disputes and help build positive relationships for the future.

Scottish Mediation is the professional body for mediators in Scotland and aims to promote a wider understanding of the appropriate use of mediation in conflict management and prevention. 

There are many advantages to partnership working or collaboration including the ability to bid for and win contracts, delivering efficiencies or reducing costs through shared infrastructure and improving coordination of services.

However, partnership working can also bring challenges. As in any group, people do not always agree or get on easily with each other and the organisations involved may have varied backgrounds and possibly different values and cultures.

The very passion, drive and commitment that draws people into the third sector can heighten issues and very quickly escalate disagreements into major disputes. This is not only stressful and unpleasant for everyone but can jeopardise potential partnerships and in some cases the future of the organisations involved.

Usually an informal discussion can resolve most issues but not everyone has the skills or confidence to handle potentially sensitive and difficult conversations and sometimes the informal approach just isn’t enough.

This is where mediation can help. It is one of the most successful ways of resolving a dispute or disagreement and is particularly effective in “nipping issues in the bud” before they become too disruptive.

It is, however, a flexible process and can be used at any stage of a dispute from the early warning signs such as personality clashes and unproductive meetings,  up to the point where positions are entrenched, “everything has been tried” and no solution can be envisaged. 

Introduction

Mediation is entirely voluntary and is usually much quicker and more effective than traditional dispute resolution methods such as grievance and complaints procedures.  Mediation is usually completed within a day or a few days at most whereas other processes can involve lengthy investigations and appeal processes.

 Most other forms of dispute resolution  focus on past events and rely on a third party to make a judgement. Any judgement is likely to be unsatisfactory  to at least one of the parties and very often to both. Mediation acknowledges what has happened in the past but focuses on the future and it is the parties themselves who make any decisions and reach agreement.

 Most mediations are successful. For example more than 80% of third sector mediations handled by Scottish Mediation are successful and this reflects similar results from a wide range of research.  People are more likely to stick to agreements made in mediation than through other processes because they are reaching agreement themselves and not having it imposed by a third party. Research into mediation pilots at Glasgow and Aberdeen Sheriff Courts found that 90% of all mediated cases reached an agreement and then implemented that agreement. This was compared to a rate of 67% implementation of judgements made in traditional court procedures.

The mediation process

Mediation involves a skilled, independent mediator who supports those involved to find a solution to the issues they are facing. The mediator helps people work out and express what their issues are and then explore what options might be available for moving forward.

The mediator does not take sides or make judgements but will make sure that everyone gets a chance to tell their version of events, hear the other side, work through the issues that are important to them and come to an agreement on how to move forward.

Mediations can take many different forms depending upon the  needs of specific cases but usually the mediator will speak to each party separately to enable them to explain the issues that are important to them and then bring them together for a facilitated meeting.

Most joint mediation meetings  fall into  5 stages  –

  • Setting Ground rules – confidentiality, respect , role of mediator
  • Uninterrupted speaking time – giving all parties the opportunity to outline their concerns and hear those of the other party.
  • Exchange – a facilitated discussion between the parties to identify the key issues and any underlying interests
  • Problem Solving .
  • Agreement – includes what can be told to whom and how future issues will be dealt with.

Benefits of mediation

 Some benefits of mediation as identified through wide research and feedback from people who have participated in mediation to resolve their  issues are –

  • it helps people to solve problems that they are facing
  • it is completely confidential
  • it is unbiased and non-judgmental
  • it is voluntary
  • it encourages early resolution of disagreements
  • it puts the people involved in control of the outcome
  • it is less formal than grievance and complaints procedures
  • it is less stressful
  • it can be cheaper
  • it can resolve disputes more quickly
  • it shows that you are keen to resolve your dispute amicably

There are a number of reasons why organisations may choose to mediate with partners or potential partners, including: 

  • it helps to build positive relationships for the future.
  • the dispute and any agreement can be kept confidential.
  • the parties stay in control of the process
  • there may be outcomes that can be agreed which formal processes could not award as these are usually restricted to legal or financial remedies and may not take into account underlying interests and needs.
  • mediation reflects core values such as respect and working cooperatively.

Scottish Mediation Third Sector Project

As in any group, people in the third sector  do not always agree or get on easily with each other and in charities and voluntary organisations difficult situations can easily arise out of the complex relationships between volunteers, staff, committee members and boards.  Disputes in the third sector can be very costly not only in terms of the financial impact on the organisation and the time spent trying to resolve the issues but also in the personal stress of those involved and their colleagues. Mediation is an effective way of minimizing these costs but even so the nature of the third sector and its financial limitations means that in many cases costs are seen as an insurmountable barrier to the use of mediation. In order to overcome this barrier the Scottish Mediation Third Sector Project was set up just over four years ago. 

Anyone in the third sector can phone the Scottish Mediation Helpline for advice on whether an issue is appropriate for mediation. If it is and all parties are happy to participate, Scottish Mediation will arrange for a professional, accredited mediator to conduct a mediation at a low cost depending upon the size of the organisation. 

Third sector organisations with an income of under £50,000 p.a. may be eligible for pro-bono mediation.
The project has dealt with a very wide range of issues and complaints involving board members, employees, volunteers and clients. Around 7% of referrals have involved difficulties arising through organisations  struggling to work in partnership.

Case Study

In a recent case, four third sector organisations had to work in partnership because of funding requirements. Previously they had been in competition for funding and still were in other areas of work so there was some underlying animosity and suspicion and a reluctance to share sensitive information or good practices.  The organisations varied in size, age and cultures ranging from one organization that valued informality, creativity, individual empowerment and flexibility to another which was more bureaucratic and prided itself on good governance. Two of the organisations had been set up and developed by local people in different groups in the target community. All of the organisations felt that their views should be prioritized either because they were bigger, more established , more experienced or were rooted in the local community.

The initial meeting with the CEOs was muted and some disagreements began to arise over how the services should be provided and governance issues. At the next meeting, tempers flared and the meeting ended without agreement. The CEOs conveyed their frustration to their staff and volunteers who reinforced the CEOs’ views that their strategies were best. As a result day to day communications between the organisations became tense with small isssues and misunderstandings escalating into major problems. By the time the third meeting was held the CEOs were even more entrenched in their positions and could not agree on any major issues. Insults and accusations were made and the question was raised as to whether the collaboration was going to work at all, putting in jeopardy the existence of at least two of the organisations.  One of the CEOs went off sick with stress caused by the situation.

Another of the CEOs who was frustrated and fearful that their organization was at risk sought support and was sign-posted to mediation. The mediator spoke to each of the CEOs  separately and then facilitated a joint meeting which identified the main issues and the underlying interests and priorities of each organization and then helped them work out how the collaboration was going to be taken forward. A number of issues were resolved and ground rules were set for future meetings. Each CEO took forward a number of action points including an agreed positive message to be relayed to their staff and volunteers. Most importantly the mediation helped the parties to identify common and complementary interests and provided a sound platform upon which future relationships could be built.

For more information about mediation more generally see the Scottish Mediation website at www.scottishmediation.org.uk / or contact the Scottish Mediation Helpline on 0131 556 118 and quote “Third Sector”.