Emerging Trends in the Mediation Field and why Mediation is great for Team Building with Bernard Morrow
Tell us about what you do.
I am a dispute resolution professional. I help people resolve conflict. Much of my work involves mediating disputes. In my role, I help empower the parties in conflict to look beyond their positions to their deeper interests and craft solutions that are sustainable and meaningful, and that they have ownership over. I’m a problem solver and I love working with people – exploring their psychological needs and the dynamics of group engagement is fascinating to me. I’m very lucky to being doing work that is so fulfilling and gratifying. With my dispute resolution training and work experience, I also provide consulting services, which include designing and delivering customized training and programming focused on negotiation skills, mediation and facilitation, communication, and team building. You can find out more about me and my business, Morrow Mediation, by visiting my website at www.morrowmediation.ca.
What emerging trends do you see in the mediation field that you think are innovative?
A hot topic of conversation right now is on-line dispute resolution (ODR). There are a number of organizations that are promoting the use of on-line tools to either settle disputes by a final decision or through a facilitated (or mediated) written process. It’s an interesting idea. In this age, we’re all on-line and geared to communicating electronically. It may be a tool to consider for the dispute resolution toolbox, but I’m not sure it’s a great fit for mediation. In my experience, so much of the value in mediation is in coming face-to-face with the person you’re in conflict with – there’s often a real cathartic benefit in that encounter. For me, ODR doesn’t offer that opportunity. But, you never know. We live in a world that’s in a real rush to get things done, so perhaps this idea will gain traction.
You work with groups doing team building.
Can you outline a few of your team building processes?
I take an interactive approach to my work with teams, using a combination of mini-lectures to introduce concepts, preceded or followed by exercises and role plays that demonstrate and reinforce ideas and encourage self-discovery. I find that the best learning occurs when participants are required to self-identify (for example, their perceived preferred approach to resolving conflict or the roles they believe they play in the group) and then are challenged to test those perceptions in realistic exercises with their peers. It is amazing how often during the course of a workshop perceptions do not measure up to what really happens within the group when faced with stress (such as deadlines, conflict, competing priorities), and this leads to some very interesting discussions about how the group could adapt to be better equipped to deal productively when dealing with these challenges. One of the more fun and illuminating role plays that I use to encourage the development of empathy involves having team members conduct a role reversal, where for example managers are asked to play administrative roles and the administrative group members are asked to play the role of managers. It’s amazing what you learn when you walk a mile in another person’s shoes.
Why do you think businesses and institutions, both large and small, should make room in their budgets and timelines to include team building for their employees?
I think too often businesses and institutions are reactionary. They wait until there is a problem and then they enlist help. That’s often when I’m called in – after there is a breakdown and some sort of conflict arises. I get it – businesses and institutions have limited resources and dollars are allocated to tangible needs. Team building is often proactive work. You’re working with a group to enhance its ability to work more productively, efficiently and, hopefully, joyfully. The problem: how do you measure the benefit to an organization’s bottom line from a team building exercise? It’s not always immediately visible on the bottom line and so it’s slotted down the list of priorities. But, in my experience, team building is critical to ensuring that the organization’s greatest assets – it’s people – are working together optimally. It’s just a worthwhile investment and the best organizations get it. Most of us spend as much time at work as we do at home with our families. If we’re having trouble with our spouse we’d probably seek counselling. So why not look to team building in the workplace? It’s focused to a large extent on the on the same goals – better communication and more productive working relationships.
Can you tell us some stories of some unexpected outcomes from your sessions?
There are often unexpected outcomes. You could take the same exercise and use it with two different groups and get completely different outcomes. It’s all in the makeup of the group.
I recall working with a manager of a team who had introduced a number of new members to his team. He was concerned that the group with its new members was not meshing and, in particular, that the new members were being excluded. In going through a team building exercise with this group we discovered that the group was actually quite high functioning and inclusive. The problem was that the manager – the person who had sought out the team building intervention – did not trust the group to take ownership of the process of integrating the new members. While he fancied himself a collaborative conflict resolver, he was really more aligned with the competitive approach to conflict resolution and he was resistant to giving up control of the group to its members. The manager had some really strong organizational and leadership skills, but he was out of sync with himself and his group. This realization was a real eye opener for this manager, but through some courageous introspection and support from his team members we were able to get this team back on course.
With another group, we had each team member self-identify what they perceived their roles to be on the team. We had an initiator, an information seeker, an opinion seeker, a clarifier, a harmonizer, a follower and an encourager, to name a few. The information seeker and harmonizer perceived themselves to be the leaders of the group. But, through a role play exercise something unexpected happened. The person who had identified herself as a follower was thrust into a leadership role – one that she acknowledged in debrief she wasn’t initially comfortable with. However, through the role play experience she tapped into communication skills she didn’t know she had and discovered the joy of leading the group. She was a natural communicator. This role evolution was a lot of fun to see and very rewarding for this person and the group.
Do you think any work environment could benefit from some basic mediation techniques?
Absolutely, the techniques that I use as a mediator are essentially life skills. To engage someone effectively requires well-developed active listening skills. To listen actively requires empathy and advanced communication techniques, including open-ended and probing questioning techniques, and the ability to paraphrase and reframe messages received. Utilized properly, all of these skills and techniques – and there are others – combine to provide a powerful arsenal of tools that any manager or worker can use to better communicate their message and to better understand their counterpart’s message. It’s all about peeling away the layers of the onion to get at what’s really important in our messaging. Often when I’m called in to deliver training or to work on a team building exercise, the desired focus is on working with people to identify, develop and harness their communication and dispute resolution skills so that they are better managers, colleagues and co-workers. We can all benefit from these skills and they are absolutely critical to productivity, clarity and harmony in the workplace – and at home too!
What is on your book shelf?? What are good reads in your field?
I try to practice “mindfulness” in my work and in my life – the notion of being present, or in the moment, in whatever we do. I think many of us struggle with that due to stress, competing priorities and the temptation to multi-task. I know I do. When I mediate or train I strive to be completely immersed, operating in what is referred to as a state of “flow” – an unconscious level of engagement. I am reading Wherever You Go There You Are, which is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s seminal work on mindfulness meditation in everyday life. I have also read his book Full Catastrophe Living and I’ve taken a course on mindfulness meditation.
For fun, I love reading a good autobiography. I’m a huge music fan, and I’m currently reading Life, Keith Richard’s autobiography. I’ve also read biographies on Lou Reed and Jim Morrison.
For good reads in my field, I always go back to Difficult Conversations (D. Stone, B. Patton and Sheila Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project), Getting Past No (William Ury, also of the Harvard Negotiation Project) and Emotional Intelligence (Daniel Goleman). While Emotional Intelligence doesn’t fit squarely into my field, it’s groundbreaking stuff that examines why empathy may be a more vital measure of intelligence than IQ. It’s a great book for managers or really anyone that deals with people.
You must have a huge range of clients as mediation skills are applicable in so many settings. Can you comment?
Much of my mediation work is in the “civil justice” sector, which means that I mediate cases that are being litigated through the courts. My main areas of focus are workplace, construction, business and personal injury disputes. I’m also frequently retained privately by organizations to conduct workplace interventions in circumstances where someone raises a poisoned work environment allegation or there is discord within a team or department. I love that work because I really get to know the organization and the people that comprise its core. I’m able to work with all stakeholders to cultivate real culture change and enhanced long-term productivity.
As I said previously, I also enjoy developing and delivering training sessions and programs that are geared to assisting organizations or groups with the development of new skills and techniques that can be used to improve communication, relationships and productivity – both with internal and external stakeholders.
I have also worked with private and public sector stakeholders on large-scale consulting projects, which have included exploring changes to human rights legislation in Ontario and the development of a new model for joint private/public sector commercial developments in the city of Toronto.
So, yes, I would agree, my skills and experience have brought me in touch with a wide variety of interesting opportunities.
How does mediation intersect with the leadership and business management field?
Strong and effective leaders in whatever context – government, politics, business – need the ability to manage people and process. That’s what I do as a mediator. I create a process for interaction – with rules to play by – and I get by-in to that process from the people I work with. Leaders of organizations need the same skill-set to manage their team members, partners and stakeholders with whom they work.
A topic of great discussion is how new media techniques change the dynamic of any workplace. What is your experience with this?
Today’s workplace is very different from the one that existed when I first started in the workforce. People frequently work remotely and if they do work out of a shared central office environment, they often work independently and in front of personal computers. Communication can often be through email, with face-to-face meetings infrequent. The work “silo” culture is probably here to stay, but I think that most of us that choose to work in an organization with others strive for a sense of belonging and are energized by working collaboratively towards the broader goals of the organization. Maintaining this energy can be challenging if you do your work independently and rarely, if ever, come into direct contact with team members. I strongly encourage the organizations I work with to make face-time a priority by conducting regularly scheduled in-person team meetings to both foster team morale and to ensure that all of the moving parts are in sync.
You have your own business, what inspires you to innovate in new directions? How do you stay connected with your passion that is your business?
The key for me is staying grounded and clear about what I am and what I do. When I first started in the dispute resolution field email and the internet were in their infancy. We’ve seen a lot of technological change over the past 20 years. So, while I now have a website, an on-line calendar, a blog and an electronic newsletter, as well as being engaged in various social networking platforms, the bottom line is making a human connection with the people that I serve. That’s my objective first and foremost – to be available, genuine, honest and committed to every client and every project I work on.
There is a trend in conventions towards the “unconference”, an encouraging of participants to have break-out sessions and bring some of their own findings to the main agenda of the conference. What skills do you think would be helpful within this framework?
The name “unconference” is new to me, but the process is familiar. I like the notion of encouraging participants to bring their ideas forward to shape the agenda for discussion. I learn a great deal from the experiences that participants share with me in my work – it’s often the best testing ground for a concept or technique. However, even an unstructured process like the unconference requires some level of structure to ensure that all participants can be heard and a tangible work product can emerge from the discussion. In my view, you need a strong facilitator with heightened organizational, conflict resolution and active listening skills – just the sort of skill set that a mediator brings to the table.
There is obviously an almost constant imperative on businesses to innovate and find new markets. How can the skills and processes you offer help to initiate this process for an organization, ie. better communication development?
Not to sound cheeky, but I think you’ve answered the question. Better communication results in improved dialogue, facilitating the flow of new ideas, which in turn leads to innovation. One of the key moments in a mediation process is the options generation stage. In the right case, I’ll suggest to the participants that they simply throw ideas out for discussion – brainstorm – without judgement or attribution. Sometimes you get some crazy ideas that are not workable, but often when we come to evaluate the best options we find that we’ve got some wonderful building blocks for resolution.
What would be in your list as desirable assets a venue should have for any meeting and planning business session ie. natural lighting, etc.?
This would be my short wish list of desirables:
• Good acoustics
• Good sightlines
• Flexibility in room configuration to facilitate group interaction
• Large enough space to allow for some interactive exercises and game playing
• Ample flip charts, markers, white boards (and walls to stick the paper on)
• Built-in technology set-up
• Break out rooms for small group work
• Good nutritious food/snacks
• And, yes, natural light to help bring the outside in
Thanks You Bernard for sharing all your wisdom and creativity!
Bernard Morrow www.morrowmediation.ca.
Photos by Paul McNulty