What is mediation?

My clients often ask me what exactly the term “mediation” means. This shows that the process of mediation – which originated in the USA in the 1970s and whose history goes back much further – is still not a fully established method of conflict resolution. And yet, it has since reached Germany and grown so popular and in demand that it was even regulated by German law in 2012. 

The benefits of this out-of-court conflict resolution method are convincing, and its limitations very manageable. Which is why it’s worth taking a closer look at the question above: What is mediation?

What makes the mediation process so special is that the conflicting parties are responsible for resolving their own conflict in a self-determined manner and with the help of a third party – a mediator. The process follows a specific structure, with so-called “stages.” The mediator, who remains neutral and impartial toward the conflicting parties, supports the necessary communication processes, creates a space of trust, guides them through the underlying structure and acts as a catalyst and bridge-builder on the relationship level.

For the mediator, the process is complex, as are the various ways it can be implemented – it   would go beyond the scope of this article to explain all the different options in detail. But it’s important to know that sometimes, the processes naturally require more interventions on the level of the subject matter of the conflict and sometimes more on the interpersonal level of the relationship. 

Particularly in the business context, it’s often only factual issues that are at stake, and these need to be resolved as smoothly, quickly and cost-effectively as possible, so that a win-win solution can be found for all parties involved. The more conventional alternative of going to court usually leads to the parties’ dissatisfaction, often takes far too long, and costs a great deal of money and time. In addition, taking an issue to court often permanently damages the relationship between the conflicting parties, rendering further collaboration impossible. This is where mediation can help.

Very often in the business context, within teams, between managers and employees, committees and management, etc., as well as in most other conflict situations – such as in the family, concerning inheritance, neighborhood, school, etc. – the conflict to be resolved is essentially at the level of relationships and needs. It is precisely in such contexts that mediation can unfold its great potential: As, with the support of the mediator, the parties examine their individual needs and seek a beneficial outcome for all, mediation enables conflicts to be resolved sustainably and to the satisfaction of both parties.

What does this mean specifically and in practice?

The mediation process is based on certain principles. For example, the selected mediator must be neutral when it comes to the subject matter of the conflict as well as to the parties themselves. At the same time, the mediator must be impartial to all parties, e.g., to balance any power imbalances. This is in contrast to a lawyer, for example, who is naturally biased in favor of the client who hired him or her. The mediator must be equally committed to both parties.

In addition, all participants, i.e., the disputing parties and the mediator, must participate in the process on a voluntary basis, but may leave the process at any time without giving a reason. In order to reach a good solution, confidentiality is paramount, as is openness and staying informed about all relevant aspects of the conflict.

Furthermore, the parties must act independently and of their own volition, i.e., they need to find the solutions that work for them and decide on them independently. If necessary, the mediator can provide support within the framework of the mediator’s impartiality. It’s always surprising to see how many people have difficulty determining what they really want, instead of just knowing what they don’t want, based on a process of elimination.

Finally, the process must be open-ended and forward-looking. Mediation is not about implementing a concrete solution or dealing with the past.

This may sound “simple” at first, but the devil is often in the details so it’s important to bring on an experienced mediator who can deal with the conflict system at hand. This always includes the individual needs of the parties.

The typical procedure is based on different stages, as mentioned above.

The mediation process begins with the so-called “opening” stage, during which the modalities are clarified, the procedure is explained in more detail and a first insight into the conflict in question is provided. The most relevant aspect of this stage is the “mediation covenant.” This means that the key thing is to create trust in the process and in the chosen mediator. Without this trust, mediation cannot work and is doomed to failure.

The opening stage leads to the “mediation agreement,” in which the classic contractual arrangements for working together are made.

This is followed by the “collection of relevant issues” as the first step of the actual mediation. The parties describe their respective issues to be resolved and formulate their respective positions. At this point, the parties are given the opportunity to express their views in an unfiltered way, and to be heard. This is a crucial point in finding a solution. Only when the parties are given the opportunity to “truly express what bothers or angers them” and are unconditionally accepted can the basis for discussion and clarification be established.

The issues collected in this way are then transferred to the “interest stage,” which aims at working out the needs, motives and emotions behind the positions and viewpoints expressed. This stage is considered the heart of mediation, as it represents the main difference between mediation and traditional litigation. In this stage, one of the mediator’s main tasks is to assist the parties in their self-reflection. Experience shows that often, the parties have not genuinely thought through their own position and tend to be unable to answer questions about their personal needs. In addition, the mediator leads the conversation from dialogic to triadic communication, ideally bringing about mutual understanding and the often-cited “a-ha” moments.

If the mediator is successful in this step, the process can move on to the “solution stage,” where the parties usually come together to brainstorm about potential solution, establish evaluation standards and agree on specific solutions, which are then recorded and set forth in the final agreement. This final agreement is a contract that can be enforced under civil law, something many parties believe provides additional security and a “double bottom line” to the process and its conclusion.

Usually, another sustainability meeting is held sometime later to check that the agreements reached have been implemented in practice.

At first glance, the requirements of the process seem fairly straightforward. But, as mentioned above, it is in fact very complex. The mediation process revolves around people and their needs in what is usually perceived as a stressful emergency situation. What mediators are dealing with is the most important thing of all: human beings and their souls. 

Therefore, special attention should be paid to the selection of a mediator, and value should be placed on the mediator’s sound training and ongoing qualification.

The method itself fits perfectly into the world of agile methods and new work concepts. It works with effects and impacts and thus takes the entire conflict system into account.

If this interests you, please get in touch anytime for a free information session to find out if this great approach is suitable for your specific situation.

Going through the mediation process is a journey – a journey to yourself and to a shared solution. It can be freeing and transformative. Mutual development and growth are at the heart of what happens alongside conflict resolution. My goal is to show you how to catch your own fish, not to serve you the fish you’ve already caught.

More than 20 years of experience – in higher education, too – have led me to the conviction that mediation belongs in today’s world more than ever.

I consider it a great privilege to help people find solutions to their stressful moments. My passion for this work carries me through each and every day and is also the reason why I do what I do.

If this blog post has inspired you to learn more, please feel free to contact me. I look forward to hearing from you.

Go for it,

Your Crisis Manager

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