From BBC News Presenter to Trainee Mediator
BY JOANNA GOSLING
“With an almost 30-year career in journalism behind me, I take an absurd pleasure in seeing the word ‘trainee’ alongside my name on the attendance list.” writes seasoned BBC news presenter Joanna Gosling. She has recently embarked on the path of becoming a mediator and describes her passion for this new profession.
At the age of 51, and with an almost 30-year career in journalism behind me, I take an absurd pleasure in seeing the word ‘trainee’ alongside my name on the attendance list for a mediation by Mark Jackson-Stops that I’ll be observing. It’s a long time since I’ve been a trainee and somehow that word engenders the same sense of pride and excitement I felt when I was 22. I’m following a similar path to the one I did then, with a self-driven apprenticeship, learning from others with wisdom and knowledge to impart that I greedily absorb.
This time around I’m fitting in my training around my full-time job as a BBC presenter. It’s full on but so stimulating it doesn’t feel like a heavy load. I’m grateful to be in this fortunate position of following a passion that my professional and personal experiences were leading me to without conscious understanding, until I had an ‘Aha!’ moment and thought, ‘I can train as a mediator!’ As Steve Jobs said, you can only join the dots looking back.
The mediation I’m here to observe is an insurance dispute, complicated in the financial detail and entrenched after three years of non-resolution.
It’s a situation that’s deeply personal and all-consuming to the individuals affected, rubbing up against an organisation, where interests and outlook diverge, causing disagreement that’s heading for the courtroom.
Avoiding rabbit holes
The thought that by the end of the day everyone in the (metaphorical) room – it’s on Zoom – can walk away and move on with their lives is what motivates me. I know not every mediation leads to a resolution. But I strongly believe in the power of a context that brings in an impartial, informed person to help transform a dispute by offering both sides the chance to be honest about their own position and stick their neck out, in a completely confidential environment, to find a way through in the quickest and least costly way.
The mediator isn’t, of course, just a go-between but a skillful observer, listener and questioner who, while not judging the merits of a case, must digest the detail and history of it in order to effectively probe and nudge towards an outcome that both sides feel is fair – or at least feels is the least-worst option.
Mark is one of the best to learn from and I feel privileged to have this opportunity. I like it when I ask him to talk through an aspect of the mediation and he says that he can’t really explain, he’s just himself and does what feels right.
His instincts are spot on and watching that in action is something that can’t be gleaned from a book. I learn a lot when I offer up a thought or suggestion that doesn’t hit the right note – and he reflects back with seasoned wisdom. Where I have spaniel-like instincts that tempt me to go at every detail, Mark’s Labrador-like calm gently guides me not to go down too many rabbit holes. Keep it simple. Ish. Be across the detail, but don’t get bogged down in it.
It quickly becomes clear why. The focus on the detail is an element of what has kept the two sides from reaching agreement. If we get stuck on that today, there likely won’t be agreement. Mediation’s strength is its difference from the legal remedy – it’s not about fighting point by point to win the case. In mediation, each side has to balance what they know about the strength, or weakness, of their position, with their desire to resolve matters, in accordance with what they know about their own situation and motivation. In other words, what they can live with.
Comparing apples with apples
Over the day, Mark deftly moves each side away from their focus on the detail. That doesn’t mean he dismisses it. He lets it run to an extent. It cannot be ignored. The passion is in the detail.
That’s clear when the claimant calls out complex figures and detail going back over three years of dispute without ever having to consult notes. It’s there, stuck in the mind, unavoidable, the story that has dominated life for so long. And of course, for the insurers, every pound is carefully considered against the wording of a contract.
So, it would be wrong and unhelpful not to acknowledge and bear witness to this.
But somehow, over the hours, Mark shapes the back and forth to focus on a total figure encompassing all the elements. He helps to make sense of the figures by ‘comparing apples with apples’. Spotting, for instance, where one quoted figure contains an element another doesn’t. At one point he very effectively conveys the conviction from one room to the other by softly quoting verbatim the words that have been used.
Out of his mouth it has a powerful effect and it feels like a moment that starts to shift perspectives.
After more than eight hours of talking, agreement is reached. It’s quite a moment. Both sides have moved a considerable way – of course, it’s a negotiation. And yet, both seem relieved and content with where they have ended up. It’s over. But it hasn’t just been a haggle. Each side has properly seen and heard the other. Perhaps that will also help with moving forward.
I know it’s not always like this. Another all-day mediation I observed didn’t resolve – on that day at least. But mediators will point out, even if a disagreement isn’t settled on the day the process can help to start to shift the dynamic and often agreement will come later as a result. I can’t wait for the next one.