What mediators need to know about mental health
‘What should I say’ or ‘how should I act’ are questions people often ask themselves when faced with mental health issues. A mediator’s practise and training equips them to create safe spaces, be impartial, non judgemental and guided by the parties needs. Yet faced with clients’ metal health issues they might find themselves asking the same questions as anyone else.
Mediator Carolyn Graham answered some of her own questions at a CMC talk with Arabella Tresilian last November and is now sharing what she has learned.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve increasingly found myself wondering ‘what should I be doing now’ and ‘what should I be saying now’ when encountering issues relating to mental health within mediation.
As part of trying to find some answers to these questions, I had the very great pleasure during the last CMC conference in November 2020 to talk with Arabella Tresilian – mediator and mental health first aider –about this very subject. Below are some of my key takeaways from what was an informative and reassuring session.
1. Focus on the behaviours, not the labels. We often as mediators talk about working with ‘what’s in the room’ and this mantra stands us in good stead here. Being able to label a set of behaviours is less useful than being able to draw on our mediator toolkit and respond to these behaviours effectively. As Arabella explains: “People may or may not be diagnosed – or ever wish to be diagnosed – with a mental health condition. Our role as mediators is to keep a ‘psychologically safe environment’ for all, and work with ‘behaviours’ rather than ‘diagnoses”
2. Be non-judgemental and especially do not fall into the trap of making assumptions about a party’s capacity – or otherwise – to mediate. Conflict and poor mental health can form a vicious circle.
Whereas mental ill health may be an aspect of a conflict, it is equally possible that the conflict itself is triggering and exacerbating a person’s mental ill health. We shouldn’t deny someone the opportunity to mediate from fear it could make the situation worse, when it could be that resolving the conflict might alleviate the very mental health condition that is the source of our concern.
Instead, we can better focus our efforts on helping parties be clear on what to expect from the mediation process, it’s purpose and what opportunities it provides and by flushing out and answering any concerns they may have. Our role should be to provide the information that allows all parties to make an informed decision about whether they wish to participate and – when appropriate – identifying what additional support might be needed in order for them to do so.
“A successful mediation will help the person up the ‘mental wellbeing’ axis of the mental health continuum, by offering clarity or closure for example. So poor mental health should not be seen as a barrier to mediation, rather mediation may act as a therapeutic”
3. Create a safe space. The creation of a safe space for parties to talk about a situation and own and share their feelings is a core aspect of what mediation provides for. The importance of naming and validating emotions remains key to helping parties process the strong emotional responses which may be present in mediations where mental ill health is a feature. Arabella explains: “psychological safety can often be achieved by careful deployment of the normal protocols of mediation.”
Clarity and flexibility of process. Being clear about process can be especially valuable to someone who otherwise might find mediation overwhelming. Clear timelines and agendas can help with this. Use of shared documents, agendas and different kinds of visual representation can further help reduce uncertainty.
Be flexible with the timings (mediate over a longer time frame, take more breaks, change the length, duration and frequency of meetings, spend more time in individual meetings) if this will better help prepare parties for a productive joint session.
Changing the environment – in a physical sense by moving seats, changing room, going for a walk or – in this virtual world of zoom – by using break out rooms – can be a way of helping parties manage high emotional responses
In other words, flexibility is your friend!
4. Don’t be afraid to ask. Fear of knowing the exact right thing to say can sometimes lead to not saying anything at all. I now realise it’s ok to respectfully ask how a party would like you to refer to their condition. It’s ok to ask if there’s anything they’d like you to know about their condition. It’s ok to ask if there’s anything they need in order to help support their engagement in mediation.
“It’s valuable to talk directly and openly with the person themselves, so they can share with you whatever they want you to be aware of, with the main aim of understanding how best to support them to get the best out of the mediation”
No one is expecting you to be a therapist or a psychologist. So if we can remember the core principles of our mediation training and practise – that as mediators we support the creation of a safe space where parties feel able to speak, share and listen to one another; that we remain respectful and compassionate, impartial and non judgemental; that we be guided by what the parties need; and that we respect the will of individuals to decide if they to wish participate – these will help us manage the experience of all parties, no matter the circumstance.