Will Mediation Make it Worse?

Elephant Charging by Vikram Gupchup

Sometimes the people who reach out to me recognize that they’re in a bad situation, but they fear that trying mediation (or some other type of intervention) will only make things worse.

There is a powerful appeal to simply living with the devil one knows. These people are coping. They know that things could be better, but they haven’t reached a crisis point where some kind of intervention seems necessary. If you’ll forgive another cliché, they see the elephant in the room but they fear that talking about it might provoke the elephant and cause a scene. And so they resolve to handle things as best as they can, sometimes venting to sympathetic friends and family.

The fear that intervening in a situation will make it worse is far from irrational. Sometimes an intervention does makes things worse. We’ve all heard about the person who went into hospital for some relatively minor matter and ended up with an antibiotic resistant infection.

Hospitals aside, for the most part only ill-timed or inept interventions make a conflict situation worse. When I first meet with clients and hear the history of their conflict, there is often a point at which a bad but stable situation deteriorates and becomes untenable. I can often trace that point of deterioration to some kind of intervention that went wrong. Maybe a manager intervened between two co-workers in a way that revealed a bias. Maybe harsh things were said that the speaker now regrets. Maybe an investigation didn’t probe deeply enough and felt more like a whitewash than an impartial inquiry.

So I can well understand the feelings of those who would rather put up with a difficult situation than take steps to change it. Once the elephant in the room has been acknowledged there is no going back to the days when everyone could see it but said nothing. That anticipation can increase anxiety.

When I’m working with a client who is struggling about whether to raise an issue or continue to live with things as they are, I often ask them to do this: Imagine it is one year from now. You’re getting up and getting ready for your day, and you know that this same issue is still alive. Nothing about it has changed. How do you feel?

Sometimes, when I ask someone to do this thought experiment, their face falls and they look stricken. The thought of living another year and confronting the same issue is just too much. At that point, they realize that they had better do something. Inaction and “coping” are no longer viable options, and they’re ready to let me help them.

An intervention by a mediator who has the skills, experience, and objectivity to assess a situation is unlikely to make things worse. A good mediator will help you send the message that you want to send, make sure that everyone has a chance to share their perspective, and generally ensure mutual respect.

Conflicts rarely go away on their own. You have to take action to resolve them, but you don’t have to do it on your own.