When to hire a mediator (rather than do nothing)?

People often ask me in what circumstances they would need a mediator. Mediators are experts in conflict resolution, and mediators work in many different settings. There are mediators on the international stage, mediators in family courts, schools, workplaces, prisons, and out on the streets. But when should you hire a mediator rather than doing nothing? I think that there are two basic factors:

1. A decision needs to be made.
2. Something of value is at stake.

Let me explain: We all have conflicts with others. Many of these, thankfully, have little effect on our daily lives. We can avoid the neighbour whose early morning leaf-blower is a weekly annoyance. We can change the subject when our brother-in-law brings up politics or the economy. We can agree to disagree with the other parents in the playground when the topic of our children’s “screen time” comes up. But sometimes we have to co-ordinate and work together with others and conflict becomes unavoidable. And sometimes, despite conflict and differences of opinion, decisions have to be made. For example, will the children of divorced parents spend the weekends with their father or mother? Will they continue to attend the neighbourhood school or transfer to a private school? Where will they spend the holidays? Who will be in charge of their religious instruction?

It isn’t only divorced couples who need to make decisions together. Mediators also work with couples who plan to marry, to help them frankly discuss and then plan for the financial and “business” aspects of their relationship. They help married couples who plan to stay together, but need assistance to communicate effectively. And a whole range of potential conflicts can arise among adult siblings. When an elderly parent can no longer live independently, who will decide the best course of action? Who will take away grandpa’s car keys if his driving is putting others at risk? What is to be done if the family farm or business is no longer viable in its present form?

What all of these different situations share is that a decision needs to be made, and there is something of value at stake. The question of what counts as “something of value” is in the end a personal matter. I’ve seen families nearly torn apart over the issue of who will host Christmas dinner! While this isn’t something that I personally would seek help with, I know others for whom a couple of hours with a mediator to resolve this issue would be a sound investment in future family relations and personal happiness.

In general the cost of mediating a particular conflict can be weighed against the cost of doing nothing. Sometimes, if we’re fortunate, the cost of doing nothing is low. But the costs of inaction and indecision are sometimes very high. Failing to act can allow conflict to fester and can end up costing as much or more than taking action. And it has to be remembered that the costs of many conflicts are both financial and emotional – with the emotional costs being much harder to calculate.