Power Dynamics in Teams: how to build awareness


Power is a presence in every mediation, every team, every group. Merriam-Webster defines power as “a possession of control, authority, or influence over others.” Typically, in mediation training courses, we will discuss how we can manage a safe space for all parties to contribute, even when there are power imbalances in the room. What usually follows is an interesting discussion about the different sources of power that give us more or less power. But there is often a sense that power is intangible.

A recent group exercise in a regional office retreat that I was facilitating for a human rights charity has changed the way I think about power. And it took power from being slightly hard to pin down, to a real and tangible dynamic. The exercise forced us all to think about how we perceive our own power – and think that through in relation to those around us.  

When I say it was a challenging exercise, I mean that it was the most difficult exercise I’ve participated in on a team event. It was an uncomfortable exercise for everyone. It was upsetting for some. It was also revealing.

It also highlighed that we can think about, not just how powerful we think we are and where that power comes from; but how we are going to use that power. What opportunities are there for me to use my own power to do something good?

What did we actually do? 

We used the Perceptions of Power exercise from Rise to Power. In the exercise, I asked the group to arrange themselves in a single line.

So far so simple.

What order? 

The ordering in the line needed to be from the person who felt that they had most power in the room to the person who expressed having the least power.

How do you gauge your power? 

We asked the participants to do the exercise silently. The intention is to base the order on their own perception, which may not be the same as someone else’s opinion.

Is it just how we are at work?  

Well, it’s not just the seniority of your position – that would be a reflection of official, recognised hierarchy. There are other aspects of power that are relevant to you as a whole.

What do we mean by ‘power’?

We considered six aspects of power, defined in “Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice Education”:

  1. Power over — the use of domination to act or produce an effect.
  2. Power with — the use of connection and cooperation to act or produce effect.
  3. Power within — the use of inner wisdom to act or produce effect.
  4. Personal Power — the use of individually unique characteristics and resources to act or produce an effect.
  5. Social power — the use of social identity to access resources and produce an effect.
  6. Empowerment — increasing individual or collective power by exposing the fallacies of “power over” and increasing our abilities to use “power with” and “power within.”

How did it work out?

We spent, perhaps, 15 minutes discussing what we were asking the group to do. We could have spent longer discussing it and responding to the challenges from the group. But one person stood up and then the group as a whole moved into a line. That was an interesting demonstration of the use of power already.

The process of arranging the single line took less than 30 seconds.  

To say this was an uncomfortable exercise is a huge understatement. But, we were working with a group who had expressly agreed that they wanted to have uncomfortable and challenging conversations. We discussed in small groups after the line-up how it felt and whether it had prompted us to think differently about power.

What did we learn?

Rise identifies three takeaways for this exercise:

  • There are multiple types of power
  • We all have power in different forms and contexts
  • Deciding how, when and why to use our power is important to reflect on

What was my main takeaway learning point?

From my experience, there’s another takeaway. I simply notice the presence and sources of power more than I did before. For the group I was working with, there was a noticeable shift in the subsequent discussions. There was a greater awareness of power as a tangible dynamic in the group, teams and projects. We shared a sense of mutuality: it really is on all of us to notice power. And to consider how, when and why we use whatever power we have individually. I’m looking for opportunities for empowerment.

“Conflict”: What’s in a name?


How do you know when you are in conflict? What is it about that situation, dynamic or conversation that makes it feel like you’re suddenly in a difficult conversation?

Is it your heart racing, blood pumping, colour rising to your cheeks and a general sense of unease? For many of us, conflict can be a stressful, threatening experience.

But we may be ‘in conflict’ more than we think.

Conflicting ideas = exchanging ideas

A conflict is actually any time in a conversation with someone when there is a difference of views, opinions, perspective. When we are expressing differing views, opinions or perspectives, we share a something that conflicts with those of the other person. Our ideas conflict with each other. Our views are in conflict. Our perspectives conflict.

This can be a good thing, because that exchange of view, opinions, perspective makes conversation and life interesting. Contrasting ideas can spark creativity. We only have to consider the alternative to see that contrasting ideas are a positive. What would the alternative be? Stagnation. Or not speaking up. That doesn’t sound great.

Positive conflict

So, if many conversations involve an element of difference, why don’t we see that as positive conflict? Sometimes we can be keen to emphasise the absence of ‘conflict’ because that word has a negative association. Paradoxically, acknowledging that there are different ideas being shared can make it easier to open up a conversation about those.

Engaging constructively

So, what can we do when we notice that we’re in a disagreement with someone we are speaking to? It’s noticing that opportunity to embrace the differences and engage in a constructive conversation where ideas are shared.

Here are some tips for that moment when we notice:

  1. Stay calm: remember this is a chance to exchange ideas.
  2. Don’t get personal: using language that attacks the other person themselves is more likely to close down the space for a discussion; instead focus on the views, opinions and perspectives.
  3. Acknowledge the difference: ‘How interesting – it sounds like we’re seeing this differently.’
  4. Explore to understand: ‘I’m curious. Could you tell me a bit more about what’s led you to that perspective?’
  5. Share our voice: ‘Shall I say something about why I see this differently?’

You can connect with Pip here for a conversation about conflict.

Conflict: What I wish I’d learnt at school


An opportunity to work with a group of 15-year olds this month exploring different aspects of conflict got me thinking.  Alongside other life skills such as managing money and nurturing mental health, what are some of the things about conflict that I wish I’d learnt as a teenager?

It’s unavoidable – and may be useful

A good chunk of my training with adult learners deals with the common assumptions that conflict is a bad thing. Or it’s seen as something to be avoided. But it can serve a useful function.  The positives that conflict can offer include the opportunity to air issues that need to be resolved.  We have an opportunity to describe what we need and to make specific requests to meet those needs. It’s an opportunity to embrace diverse thinking and different perspectives. In the workplace, a team without conflict isn’t a dream team, it’s a stagnant team!

And we can’t avoid conflict entirely.  We can choose to disengage from a conflict situation, by choosing an avoidant approach. But we are still subject to that conflict, but now without the scope to work constructively. We;’re missing the opportunity to meet our needs and to understand better what the other person is seeking to achieve. Hint: there’s generally more to it than just because they want to be mean. This might have surprised my 15-year old self!

To understand what’s happening, I need to go beyond the right/wrong trap

Focusing on allocating blame is limiting.  It limits the scope to understand what is driving the other person’s actions and behaviour.  I can widen the scope for us to reach an agreement by making a different choice. I can do this by seeking to understand what’s going on under the surface. Why are they behaving as they are?  What are they trying to achieve?  What really are they trying to achieve? This is also reminds me of the Stephen Covey lesson to ‘seek first to understand’ before I make my own case.

I can choose how I engage with conflict and I can engage better

Our learned conflict style isn’t the only option available to us. Talking through concerns wasn’t the default option when I was growing up. Looking back, I suspect that many of the adults around me were conflict-avoiders. There are certainly times when avoiding a conflict may serve me well. But if that’s my only way of responding then there’s an opportunity to do better. And that could work out better for me too.

My conclusion – I have improved how I manage conflict situations and there’s scope to improve further

I have worked on my conflict skills for some years now. And I sometimes describe myself as a ‘recovering conflict avoider’ when I’m training. Using this is when we’re talking through the five Thomas-Kilman conflict styles (avoiding, competing, compromising, accommodating, collaborating).  

I know that there is always scope to improve. It’s easier to enagage constructively in conflict as a third party, or in a professional setting. And, for me, I find it hardest to respond well in situations of personal conflict with my family. But I appreciate the skills I’ve built so far and I want to go further.

When training and coaching, I always emphasise that conflict skills can be developed at any stage of life. It would be great to start to develop those early on. But even if we didn’t, we can still build a solid set of skills to engage with conflict at all levels of intensity more effectively.

You can connect with Pip here for a conversation about conflict.

Always and Never: the two words that get in the way of constructive discussions


Constructive disagreements are the mark of a strong, healthy team. Just ask Matthew Syed, whose ‘Rebel Ideas’ set out the risk of stagnation in teams that aren’t able to share differing perspectives and views in a constructive discussion.

But, for many of us, it can feel stressful and scary to find ourselves in a conflict with someone – even if that is in a discussion where our views are conflicting. There may be times when avoiding conflict is a smart move. But if it’s holding us back from contributing our experience and views to a team discussion, then it’s getting in the way of our own best interests. Click here for more on conflict styles and how expanding your range of go-to conflict responses can help you reduce your stress.

The good news is that disagreeing constructively is a learnt skill – which means we can get better at this.  In our previous post, we explored the advantages to building up our conflict competence.  This post will focus on two words that crop up a lot and rarely help progress a disagreement constructively: always and never.

Always and Never

What does this mean?

They each generalise behaviour:

‘he never listens’

‘she always undermines me’

‘they never ask me how I am’

Are those statements entirely true?  Is it always the case that these colleagues are showing the behaviours described?  Is it really something that happens unfailingly?  Or something that is unfailingly absent

The risk is that in using these words we gloss over nuances in the behaviour being described. They are, therefore, often inaccurate.

Why are these words problematic?

It’s distracting from the main message – the other party is likely to focus on the veracity of the statement.  When I receive this, my mind immediately goes to thinking about the occasions when it isn’t the case – and I lost the main message that the other person wants me to hear.

They exacerbate the disconnection and get in the way of connecting.  

What can we do to move into a more constructive discussion?

In her fantastic book and training, mediator Gerry O’Sullivan explains that these statements take an example of behaviour and apply that to all that person’s actions.  She encourages us to probe the statements to develop an understanding of when this is behaviour takes place and when it doesn’t:

“He never listens”

  • What experience have you had that leads you to say that?
  • Are there any examples where that wasn’t the case?
  • Is there ever a time when he does listen? 

Listening to people in mediations using ‘always’ and ‘never’ has made me much more aware of my own use of these words.  And I now use them much less often because they generally aren’t accurate.

Have you noticed how ‘always’ and ‘never’ affect the flow of discussion?

Pip would love to talk to you about any conflict issue that is getting in the way you achieving what you want to – click here to set up an exploratory 30 minute call.

What are the three things about workplace conflict that we often get wrong?


For many of us, conflict at work is a ‘bad thing’, whether it’s an overt dispute or just the tensions bubbling away under the surface. It’s stressful, distracting and disruptive. And the effects are usually felt by many more people than just those directly involved.

It’s common for our initial reaction to conflict to be to avoid it, or to fight back, to placate or to see if there’s a compromise where everyone gets something so that that issues are less pressing – the classic Conflict Styles described by Thomas and Kilmann.

But what could we do differently – and what might we be missing about the conflict, disputes, tensions that could help us to engage more constructively?

Conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing

Before we continue, I’d like to pause for a moment.  

I’d like to invite you to imagine your workplace.  What if there were no conflict in your team?  What would that look like?  

The dynamic is peaceful. No arguments. No disagreements. Everyone’s personal style is aligned.  No clashes.  No opposing views.

No differences of opinion, views or perspectives.

Peace…..  Or, perhaps, stagnation.

Is that really what we want? Or, is that more like Matthew Syed’s unintelligent team of clones – who all think alike?

Without differing views and perspectives, i.e. without views and perspectives that conflict with each other, we end up with group think.  This matters because cognitive diversity strengthens business.  

We want disagreement.  But we want constructive disagreement.  It’s important to be able to share opposing, conflicting views, without erupting into harmful conflict.  

If we can see the issues from the other side of the table, then we are a lot more likely to find a way to resolve them

Mediators talk about the iceberg – a party’s position statement is at the top.  That’s the bit that you see and hear.  It’s what they are saying.  Underneath the water, lies their interests, needs, wants.  Those explain why they are saying whatever they are saying.  

To understand the issues from other person’s perspective, we need to explore what is going on under the surface

If you focus only on the part of the iceberg that you see, then you are very likely to get stuck.  Often those position statements are in opposition to each other.  By seeking to understand why the parties need, want, those positions – it gives you more information that is relevant to reaching an agreement.

Mediators also talk about the orange.  You may have already heard this because it is a scenario used in mediation training, as well as negotiation training.   For those who haven’t, there are two kids fighting over the last orange in the fruit bowl.  The parent comes in a decides enough is enough – they split the orange and give each child half.  Seems fair, right?  One child takes their half into the sitting room, peels it and eats it, throwing the peel away.  The other takes their half into the kitchen, peels it and uses the peel for the cake they are making, throwing away the pulp.  

What could the parent have done differently?  They could have asked why each child wanted the orange.  There was a missed opportunity for each child to get 100% of what they wanted.

Developing an understanding of why people in conflict are taking their positions gives you a chance to find a win-win agreement at the end.

Empowering people to find their own solutions is likely to result in longer lasting agreements

When I worked in Somalia, one significant recurrent risk was that the interests of the donors would affect the internal political agreements between different Somali political factions.  The sustainability of any agreements reached depended more on the relationships between Somali stakeholders.  They were the main actors in the conflict.

A mediator creates the space for discussion, manages the process and listens out for the issues that really matter. They don’t ‘own’ the dispute, nor are they responsible for reaching an agreement. The parties are responsible. 

And agreements tend to stick when they have been determined by those directly affected by the conflict.

Mediation Magic: Why does it work so well?

It’s not that kind of magic

Mediation is a really successful way to resolve workplace conflict. You wouldn’t be surprised to hear that from a mediator! But the statistics also show this very clearly. When I deliver training courses, I invite participants to take a guess as to the success rate of mediation – this is the percentage of cases that go into mediation that are resolved, i.e. that result in an agreement or an action plan at the end. I can recall one occasion where a training participant guessed around 90% but generally the guesses are more modest – 40%, 50%, 75% perhaps. 

In fact, it’s more like 93% in workplace mediation. A huge number. So, what is it about this structure, this role, this approach that makes it quite so successful? 

You won’t, I suspect, be surprised to hear that it’s nothing to do with hats, rabbits, and wands. For me, it boils down the four principles of mediation and what specifically those principles deliver. In this blog post, we will consider those principles and how they provide a rare opportunity for the parties to discuss and resolve their issues.

What are the mediation principles?

Mediation is often described as a semi-formal, or pre-formal process. There is some flexibility in the structure, in terms of the mode of delivery (in-person, telephone or online, or a mix of those) and arrangements (all the meetings on one day or incorporating some time in between the stages for reflection). 

But, that flexibility in structure is based on four fundamental principles that define mediation. Those are:

  1. Impartiality: as a mediator I am not aligned to any one side or another. I am there to support everyone involved in the process – 2 parties, 3, or more. I am not on any one side or another – or, as I prefer to describe it, I’m on everyone’s side. I’m there to support them all.
  2. Neutrality: you are neutral. I don’t have an interest in how the issues resolve – my interest is to facilitate and hold the space for the parties to work out what issues need to be addressed for the working relationships to function (well-enough or to really thrive) and what actions are needed to address those issues.
  3. Voluntary: it’s crucial for everyone involved to make a choice to take part in the mediation (or not). This decision is really important. Simply put, you can’t force people into the room and achieve a lasting resolution…. It simply doesn’t work. Sometimes you may have someone who feels that they are choosing to take part because their other options were worse, but they are still taking that decision for themselves.
  4. Confidentiality: underpins the whole process. It is absolutely essential for those involved the reassurance to know that they can talk honestly about what’s been happening, the impact, discuss ideas of how issues could be resolved, without the worry that anything could be used against them afterwards, which could really constrain the discussion.

Those sound like nice things to have. And they are. But they are much more than that. You can absolutely tweak and adjust elements of the mediation to ensure that it’s delivering a constructive space for the parties. But these principles underpin it all.

Why are those critical?

Safe space

It’s because those create a safe, psychological space for the parties to speak and to listen constructively, with empathy. The parties are empowered to own the discussion of issues and resolution. They can voice their perspectives on what has been causing concern in the relationship. The parties can share the impact on them, which may involve frankly courageous honesty and openness, talking through perhaps painful emotions. AND they can talk through what they need from that working relationship in the future. The safe space is absolutely essential to give the parties the opportunity to do that.

Being heard

They get to have their voice heard by the other party. And this is so powerful. It’s such a core need for all of us – to be heard. Also, to be understood – and to build an understanding of where the other party is coming from.

Building understanding and empathy to consider what the situation looks like to their colleague

Often at least one party will say to me as mediator, ‘do you know, this is first time that I feel that someone has really listened to me’. Because we find that this doesn’t happen as much in our working environments as we might think. 

And this feeling heard is – I believe – what allows the parties to shift their focus from past hurts to a future where they enjoy a productive working relationship. That’s where the magic is.

For me, there is magic throughout the mediation process. The initial calls that with parties give them a lot of space to talk through what’s been happening and what they need. And when I bring the parties together in a joint meeting, facilitated by me as the mediator – that’s where they have the chance to share their voice and to hear what the other party wasn’t to voice – this is where you really do see the magic. There can be a palpable shift in the way they view the conflict, they way they view what has happened, how they see the other party and even what they want to get out of it. At times, you can almost hear the pressure in the room easing as they start to understand each other better.

This is why I think mediation offers something quite unique compared to other approaches to resolve conflict. That’s the magic.

Workplace Mediation: When not to do it?


If you are experiencing conflict with someone at work, there are lots of reasons to go into workplace mediation – explored here. The main reason is to reach an agreement that resolves the issues.  Other benefits include creating a better understanding of what each other needs from the working relationship, building empathy and increasing confidence to address issues quickly and directly in future.

But – transformative as it can be – mediation isn’t a panacea for all workplace conflict issues.  There are times when other options may be more helpful.  This blog post considers three concerns that may mean that other options would be more suited to resolve the issues.

When one of the parties doesn’t really want to mediate

For workplace mediation to be successful, however you define success, it requires the support of all parties involved.  They need to want to resolve the issues that are causing friction in the relationship.

So, why wouldn’t you want to resolve those issues?  Well, perhaps one of the parties considers an alternative dispute resolution method is going to give them a better result.  They want their voices heard and see ‘having their day in court’ as the way to do that. 

The irony is that you may be more likely to have your voice heard in mediation. Matthew Syed’s Sideways podcast episode, ‘A Question of Justice’, exploring restorative justice highlighted this.  The parents of a young man killed by a gang went to court. But they found that the hearing was particularly distressing. They felt that they were, at that point in the justice process, almost incidental.  They turned to restorative justice to have their voices heard and acknowledged.

Parties can have an expectation that they have to go to court to have their voice heard, but the reverse may be true

As a mediator, sometimes one of the parties tells me that they want to get justice through the legal system. If that happens, I will respect that.  But I do explore with them what ‘justice’ means for them.  And we discuss how that might be best achieved.  Ultimately, it’s the parties’ choice to take part in mediation or not.  It’s not my role to talk them into it.

Entrenched positions, unwilling to negotiate

Are the parties or a party taking an absolute position regarding what they want from the negotiation? This could be an indicator that they don’t really want to mediate.  By its nature, workplace mediation gives the parties to hear directly from each other. They discuss mutually beneficial ways to resolve their issues. It rarely involves one party accepting another party’s demands in their entirety, with no accommodations to their own position. 

When a party is unwilling to discuss or even consider making any changes to their own position or behaviour, it is an indication that workplace mediation may not be helpful.

It’s not safe

This is a very clear-cut reason not to mediate. If there are circumstances where there may be violence between the parties, then workplace mediation is not suitable. As a mediator, I take my responsibility for providing a safe space for discussion very seriously.  If I am concerned about the risk of violence, then I will not convene a joint meeting.

And the safe space also relates to psychological safety. The joint meeting between the parties can be the stage in the process where ‘the magic happens’. It’s where I see the greatest shift in the dynamics between the parties. The parties need to feel safe to benefit from the opportunity to hear and be heard. And to reset the relationship that the joint meeting presents. If they don’t, then they are very unlikely to want to contribute to the discussion.

If they feel safe, they are more likely to engage and collaborate with the other parties. That collaboration allows them to identify, discuss and resolve the issues that have caused concerns. I’ve seen the greatest transformations in workplace mediations where the parties have been honest. And when they have shared what’s been going on for them, even where that has been painful. This is so critical. In their honesty, they expose their vulnerabilities to the others, often by describing the impact of the conflict on them. Without that psychological safety, the discussion is stuck, the issues are unresolved and the parties can’t move forward.

“The more we create psychological safety, the more we enjoy the rewards of rich connection, belonging, and collaboration. The less we create it, the more we suffer the bitterness and sting of isolation.”

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, Timothy R. Clark

Other concerns that may not necessarily mean that mediation is off the table

Parties often raise these issues as a reason not to mediate.  I like to explore them in more detail because, to me, they aren’t necessarily show stoppers.

  • We’ve already put in our complaint to HR/ raised a case with ACAS/ sought legal advice: ok, but taking part in workplace mediation doesn’t close down your options to use any other proceedings. You can resolve the issues sooner though. That can reduce the stress of the whole situation.
  • But the other person is a manager, so I won’t get a fair hearing: actually, workplace mediation opens up a safe space to have your voice heard. The process encourages the parties to engage in mutually respectful, adult to adult discussions.
Workplace mediation gives you a chance to be heard
  • They’ll never change so what’s the point?: well, even if the other party doesn’t agree to everything that you want, you can be heard.  Workplace mediation gives you a chance to tell the other person what is causing concern for you.  You have the opportunity to share what the impact on you has been. Often, the other party has not fully appreciated what it’s like from your perspective.  The mediation also gives you a chance to learn about what is going on for them.  Why they are behaving as they are.  And what the impact of the issues have been on them.  This information can create a different shared understanding of the issues.  You may agree other actions too. But, even if that doesn’t happen, mediation often increases the empathy between parties. That can lead to changes and adjustments to behaviours later.


Workplace mediation offers a strongly effective way to resolve issues.  But it can’t resolve everything.  Ultimately, the scope for a mediation to be ‘successful’ depends on where the parties stand. It also depends how willing they are to take part.

If you are involved in a situation that is causing stress and worry, why not have a call with Pip? We can discuss the issues and consider opportunities to resolve those. Click here to send Pip a message and we’ll arrange a convenient time to talk it through. 

Pip would love to talk to you to see if we can help get your conflict issues resolved

Workplace Mediation: What is success?


Mediation statistics focus on the success rate for mediations as the percentage of cases that reach an agreement as a result.  While this is a useful indicator of a successful mediation, it isn’t the only one.

This blog considers the benefits of the mediation agreement and identifies other benefits that mediations often deliver in the workplace.

An agreement

Getting to an agreement is the commonly cited way to gauge whether a mediation was successful. For the parties, setting down the points of agreement and any actions that they have each agreed to take forward can represent a very tangible output of the process.

The agreement can also signify their willingness to work together.  And it allows for accountability – it’s clear who has taken responsibility for which actions.


It’s not for nothing that mediators often see the joint meeting, where both the parties have the opportunity to speak and to hear from each other directly, as ‘where the magic happens’.  Hearing from each other directly can build the parties’ understanding of each other’s perspective of the conflict, how the dispute has impacted the other party and, crucially, what each needs from the relationship in the future.

“I didn’t realise that was how it looked to you”


Hearing what the issues have been like for the other party and what the impact has been on them personally can also lead to greater empathy. Often in conflict, there can be a tendency to demonise the other party – to see them as fundamentally a ‘bad person’. This perspective can be the lens through which the whole relationship is viewed.

Demonization results in constant suspicion and blame, a systematic disregard of positive events, pressure to eradicate the putative negative persons or forces, and a growing readiness to engage in escalating conflict. 

The Psychology of Demonisation: Promoting Acceptance and Reducing Conflict

Giving the parties the opportunity to shift from this perspective is a hugely valuable part of the mediation process.

This is also the part of the process where the atmosphere in the meeting room tangibly shifts.  The pressure between the parties eases.  And, with that shift, it’s very natural to then move into the stage of the mediation meeting where the parties start to problem-solve their issues.

“I can see it’s been hard for you too.”

Confidence to resolve any further issues directly

We know that issues are likely to arise in the future – even with the best will in the world, when there are two or more people involved, there are almost certainly going to be areas where they disagree.  NB this isn’t a bad thing, in fact, having those differing perspectives can be very helpful, if they are handled constructively.

At the conclusion of mediation, the parties commonly agree to address any future issues directly between themselves in future.  Having worked through the mediation process, there is often an increased level of confidence that they can work through issues together because, well, they have done just that as part of the mediation.  Yes – they have done this with the support of the mediator.  But, since self-determination is baked into the mediation process, the mediator doesn’t tell the parties what to do, make suggestions, or recommendations.  The onus is on the parties to identify what changes are needed for their relationship to be better in the future.


Getting an agreement at the end of a mediation is a great achievement and provides much-welcomed clarity on who is going to do what, for the future.  The less tangible benefits from the mediation process include a greater understanding of each other’s perspectives and needs, empathy and the confidence to address issues directly in the future.

If you’d like to discuss a potential mediation with Pip, please click here and we will be in touch to arrange a no-obligation call of about 30 minutes.

How bad does it have to be to make it worth calling a mediator? When to mediate


Many of us often face challenging and difficult situations.  We usually manage those as well as we can.  Most workplace tensions are not managed with the assistance of an external third party. So, how bad does a situation have to be to justify bringing in an external facilitator or mediator to help?  When is the situation officially a ‘conflict’?  

Workplace conflict is everywhere

ACAS estimate that workplace conflict costs British businesses just under £30bn a year.  That breaks down to roughly £1000 cost per employee.  These figures include the tangible costs, such as legal fees and the cost of management time spent. They also include other costs that may not be immediately apparent, such as lost productivity and retention/recruitment costs – 800,000 people of the 10 million involved in a workplace conflict will leave the organisation within years (resignations/dismissals).

The overt and the covert

‘Conflicts’ include issues that have escalated to a very visible dispute.  But they also include situations where latent conflict issues may not yet have overtly surfaced, but are present, bubbling away under the surface. The manager may be aware that there are issues that need to be addressed between two members of their team, but they are, perhaps, hoping that the issues will sort themselves out without them needing to be involved.

They usually don’t go away on their own.

When is it time to try mediation?

Here are some points to help consider when to mediate:

1. When the disagreement is starting to get in the way of your team working well and you need to rebuild the relationship

Conflict can be constructive – a well-functioning team needs to be able to air different perspectives and views to avoid group think. But we need teams that are ‘conflict competent’ to manage those discussions constructively. Mediation is particularly valuable to restore relationships – so when an ongoing relationship between yourself and the others is crucial, it can really help.

2. You’ve already had a go at resolving things informally, directly

You’ve raised that there is an issue and tried to get it resolved

But things are still difficult and it’s getting in the way of getting the job done.  This would be a good time to step it up – it’s time to get a bit more help.

3. Before the tensions escalate – and the costs

It is generally considered better to start mediation as soon as possible during the disagreement.  ACAS advice that the earlier the disagreement is dealt with, the less chance there is of things getting worse.

Prompt mediation will help reduce the amount of time and money spent on the dispute and open a dialogue with the other party before they become too fixed in their position.

It’s worth noting that some lawyers consider that bringing in mediation later in the conflict, once parties have had a chance to receive legal advice is preferable. Thisis so that they go into the discussions better informed.

4. The people involved want to resolve the issues quickly and discreetly

If the people involved want to resolve the situation but need some facilitation to do that, the situation is ripe for mediation. There are lots of benefits to this approach over other dispute resolution approaches – including speed, privacy and control. 

What is mediation anyway?

Mediation is a quick way to resolve disagreement at work and is:

  • Less formal
  • Flexible
  • Voluntary
  • Confidential 


If workplace tensions are getting in the way of your team delivering what they need to do – and there have already been efforts to resolve the issues that haven’t worked – then it may be time to consider mediation.  If this describes your situation, click here to arrange an informal, no-obligation call with Pip to consider whether mediation could help.

Mediation: When to Shuttle


If you’re keen to mediate but aren’t sure about having a face to face meeting, then you may be wondering what your options are.  You may have already heard of shuttle mediation.  Here is the low-down on the option of shuttle mediation.

What is shuttle?

Shuttle mediation is when your mediator meets each of the parties separately to discuss their issues and needs with them. The mediator will discuss what each side would like to raise and what requests they would like to make of the other side/s.  The big difference between shuttle and other mediation is that there isn’t a joint meeting for all the parties together.

Is that less effective?

Maybe a joint meeting isn’t going to be helpful

Not necessarily.  It depends.  It’s true that for many mediators there is a magic in that joint meeting.  It gives each of the parties involved in the dispute a chance to hear directly from each other about what the issues are that matter, what impact the conflict has had on them, and what they want to be different in the future.  You do still cover those points in a shuttle.  But it can be incredibly powerful to hear that directly from the other party themselves. There can often be a very tangible shift in the room once the parties have heard from each other.  It can be transformational in the parties’ understanding of the dispute.

But it doesn’t always work like that.  And there may be numerous reasons why it could be unhelpful to have the parties in the room together.  Maybe the power imbalance is very pronounced.  It may be too intense for one or all parties.  Maybe there is a concern whether the physical or psychological safety of the parties can be managed by the mediator.

It’s worth remembering that a joint session isn’t the only way to progress your mediation to an agreement.

Here are my top three reasons why you could consider a shuttle mediation approach:

  • Less pressure

You can progress your mediation in a way that is less confrontational, less challenging.  This could mean the difference between completing your mediation and not.  S

Shuttle mediation gives parties a chance to manage the pace themselves
  • More space to think and catch your breath

Shuttle is conducted in stages and the mediator alternates between private meetings with each of the parties.  While the mediator is not with the party, they have a chance for reflection and/or rest – mediation can be a draining experience.

  • Still scope to get an agreement

The mediator will still provide the parties with the space and support to resolve the issues that are in dispute.  

When wouldn’t you shuttle?

If you have a workplace conflict with parties who work together, want to resolve their dispute with a shuttle mediation and are unwilling to conduct a joint meeting together… then I would have some reservations.  If the objective for the mediation is to resolve the working relationship, then they are almost certainly going to need to be comfortable being in the same room with each other. But there may be other support that could help the parties work through their issues.

Workplace Mediation: What’s in it for me?


5 Reasons to Mediate

If you are facing a conflict situation at work, it may be that you have already considered mediation as one of the options available to you to resolve the conflict. But what are the factors to consider as you weigh up your options?

To help inform your decision, this blog outlines the top five benefits of the process.

It works.

Mediation is staggeringly effective.  CEDR estimate 93% of civil and commercial mediation cases achieve an agreement – 72% on the day of the mediation and a further 21% settle shortly afterwards.  That statistic is similar in the workplace. The TCM Group resolve 93% of their workplace mediations.  Other sectors differ somewhat but are still high – community mediation resolve over 80% of cases, in family mediation over 70% of cases resolve.

If you want to resolve the issue, why wouldn’t you try mediation? 

It is private.

A key attribute of mediation is that it is confidential, with rare exceptions (safeguarding, threats of harm).  This means that we can explore options without prejudice, i.e. without the concern that you are making concessions simply by discussing those options. If an agreement is reached, that agreement or action plan remains confidential between the parties unless they all agree that it may be shared, e.g. with an HR representative.  But if they don’t all agree, then the agreement is not shared and remains confidential.

That stands in stark contrast with other non-confidential dispute processes that can leave employees feeling exposed and under attack.  It’s hard to see how process that leave staff feeling defensive is setting anyone up well to resolve issues. See David Liddle’s Transformational Culture for more on this.

You are in control of the solution.

The parties decide what actions are needed to resolve the dispute. The mediator will support the parties to identify what is needed for them each to move on.  This means the parties are in control of the agreement.  Their actions are the actions they choose and agree; the actions that are relevant and important to them. That may include actions that could not be considered as part of the ‘settlement’ in other processes.

The parties are also not subject to the judgement of others. The whole process is focused on what needs to happen/change in order for the relations to be restored, e.g team relationships. It is not about determining who is right and wrong. This means that mediation works best when parties want to repair the working relationship: they want to resolve the situation. Putting aside the need to be right – and replacing that with a need to be understand and to understand.

It is quick – and relatively inexpensive

Mediation can be fast to arrange, which means that conflicts can be nipped in the bud before they escalate, causing stress and costing businesses more in lost productivity and staff time.  Once parties’ availability is confirmed and your mediator is appointed, the process can move very quickly. The whole mediation may be conducted over one day, whether that it online or in-person – with initial private meetings taking place in the morning and a joint meeting in the afternoon.  

You have the freedom to set out the actions you want to include.

Mediation is a responsive approach. The impact of conflict can be expressed, heard and understood by each side. This critical part of the process encourages empathy between the parties.  They have an opportunity to hear directly what the impact has been on each other.  This can often tangibly release the tension and – having been heard – frees the parties up to start talking about the future.

Would you like to talk more about how mediation and conflict resolution can help you?

The Right/Wrong Trap: Whose truth are we talking about?


In a disagreement, what is the most important thing to you – to be right, or to be able to move on?  For some of us, we need to have our position accepted as The Truth. And often in mediation, that need to be ‘right’, gets right in the way of the parties being able to resolve the dispute.

Focusing on what’s needed for a resolution is more helpful than thinking about issues in terms of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

Often parties describe their position and it tends to be in quite black and quite terms – they are right and the other person is, therefore wrong.  This is a trap.  If we think about issues only as right and wrong, then if we aren’t right, then we must be wrong. Being wrong feels like a judgment-heavy, uncomfortable position to be in. 

When we take a right/wrong view of issues, that makes it harder to get a resolution everyone is content with.  It takes us further from the win-win result. It constrains the discussion into a binary framework.  And we may feel we have little choice but to entrench and defend our position.

Focusing on right and wrong makes it almost impossible to think creatively about how to satisfy everyone’s interests and resolve the dispute.

Mediation focuses on the future, rather than right/wrong.

This is where mediation offer parties a different approach to that taken in other forms of dispute resolution.  Facilitative mediation not focused on right and wrong. In many cases, it’s not particularly relevant.  

It can be really challenging to move beyond that position. It is still natural for the parties involved in a dispute to fall into the right/wrong trap when talking through what’s happened.

Instead, the mediator will help the parties identify what’s going on underneath the surface of their position – what they really need to move on.

Why?  Because it’s a more potentially constructive area to explore than a limiting statement that ‘I’m right and they are wrong.’ And there may be a variety of meanings.

What people could mean when they say ‘I’m right’.

When a party in a dispute or argument states ‘I’m right’ – we can take that at face value.  They may well mean “I believe that it is my right to do/say/behave as I did”.

But there may be other meanings:

  • “I need my perspective acknowledged”
  • “I need my needs to be met”
  • “I want to be heard”
  • “I want the other person to agree to what I want”
  • “I want to be reassured I haven’t done wrong”

A mediator helps those involved in the dispute to address and explore what’s underneath the initial positions taken by parties. Part of that may be to support and coach the parties to move to a more empathetic stance. Seeking to understand how these issues look from other perspectives.  

What does the Mediator do?

Although controversial for some, in mediation and in disagreements more generally, it can be helpful to consider that we are working with at least three versions of the truth:

  1. The truth as I see it from my perspective
  2. The truth from your perspective
  3. The facts of the issue.  

All are important to understand to reach a resolution.

Understanding perspectives is key to resolution.

It seems to me that the cases where there are clear-cut issues of right/wrong are rare.  It’s all in the perspective. Instead of getting stuck in the right/wrong trap, seeking to understand those differing perspectives has been much more constructive in terms of getting the issues resolved and helping the parties to move on.

How do you introduce yourself? Career changers and evolving professional identities

When do you change your ‘introduction label?

What do you do?

The first time I introduced myself as a mediator wasn’t at in a business setting, or a networking event.  It was to my new dentist.  He asked me what I do for work.  I paused, before replying “I’m a mediator and conflict coach”.  This was the first time that I had said described myself by the field I was moving into. It felt significant.

I’ve worked in conflict for a long time.  But after years working overseas, I trained as a mediator a couple of years ago.  Since then, I’ve been working on building a mediation business. My focus is on workplace and community disputes – and, more generally, disputes where emotions are running particularly high.

When to change your introduction label?

As a career changer/pivoter, I found it hard to identify the point when it’s ok to label myself by my new role, without being disingenuous.  It’s the same when you’re starting out in your career.  I’ve heard of career coaches advising that you should use your ‘new label’ when asked what you do, rather than continuing in a box that you’re moving on from.

There’s a whole discussion over whether these labels are really helpful or not – and what using your work as your primary identifier means for you.  But I’ll leave a discussion of labelling theory to the psychologists.

According to Second Breaks, it’s important to reflect your new professional identity:

When you fully accept the shift in your professional identity, you project a level of self-assuredness that people around you pick up on and respond to.

For me, this came after I’d been a qualified mediator for more than 18 months, with several mediations and conflict coaching calls under my belt.  I’m not entirely sure why it felt right to tell my dentist that I’m a mediator. But it felt good and I’ve continued to introduce myself as a mediator since.

What’s your experience of evolving your pitch and how you introduce yourself?

10 Insights into Mediation Mentoring


“If you cannot see where you are going, ask someone who has been there before”

J. Loren Norris

A common challenge faced by many newly qualified mediators is how to make the transition from training to working as a mediator. Discussions in mediation circles often focus on mentoring as one way to address this. Acknowledging that newly qualified mediators would benefit from mentors, and recognising their feedback, the CMC have recently launched a mentoring pilot. But what’s it really like to take part in mentoring? 

Roger Levitt is a Fellow of the CMC, solicitor for 37 years and has over 12 years’ experience of conducting property and commercial mediations. Philippa Brown (Pip), is a junior mediator who worked together with Roger as mentor/mentee. We’d like to share our top 10 insights about the arrangement and its benefits.

A mentor can help you navigate your early days as a mediator


1. Transition

Roger helped navigate the blue water between completing mediator training and starting to work as a mediator. Having made the most of CEDR’s webinars (including an excellent session from Andy Rogers on marketing yourself as a mediator), I made some initial steps but was stuck and unsure what to do next. Roger helped me with an action plan and gave me the advice and encouragement I needed to get going.

2. Applying my experience and skills

Having an external perspective was helpful to draw out and apply my relevant experience and skills to mediation; it can be easy to miss those when they are your own. Working across cultures is a core element of my international work, but I overlooked the practical point that I am accustomed to working with interpreters, which can also be useful in mediation. 

3. Mediation sector knowledge

A mentor can help you grow your skills and experience

Talking to Roger gave me a better understanding of the mediation sector and markets for mediators, which is not intuitive. Getting the ‘view from inside’ the sector was invaluable and allowed me to understand better where the opportunities lie for me to seek clients.

4. Coaching approach

There are similarities between the mentoring approach and that of coaching. It’s not a case of being told ‘the answers’ to the challenges of starting out as a mediator. And it’s crucial to have the space to develop one’s own personal style and approach. Also, being able to observe different mediators has been difficult during the pandemic but is valuable as a complement to mentoring.

5. Where to start

Roger’s practical support and advice helped me get my action plan off the ground. I developed a training plan as a requirement for my CEDR training, but working out how to put it into practice was the challenge. Roger and I worked on our own action plan, which I have followed up over the last 12 months. I am pleased with the results I’ve achieved so far, in a relatively short space of time – entirely during the COVID restrictions. And, as in other coaching style arrangements, the sense of accountability to work through the actions made a difference.


1. Identifying the need

When I qualified as a civil and commercial mediator over 12 years ago, there was no programme for mentoring. Once I had been qualified for 10 years, I decided the time was right to provide a one-to-one mentoring service to satisfy the need that I saw.

It’s important to be practical in your early career

2. Passing on what I’d learnt

I wanted to pass on the knowledge I’d gained, in many cases through tough experience, in a practical way that the mentees could appreciate and work with. 

3. Mentoring Style

My mentoring style is collaborative and consensual rather than didactic. So I hope that this enables the information to be passed on more easily. 

4. Establishing Rapport

I chose to work on a one-to-one basis rather than in a group as I felt this would help me to establish rapport quicker. I’m pleased to say that I have maintained long term relationships with nearly all of the mentees I’ve worked with. 

5. Being Practical

I devised an action plan which I felt covered the key areas that needed to be worked on in the early years of the mediator’s career. It contained steps that I’d taken, but over a longer period than I would now advocate if full time and attention can be given (for the first 9 years of my mediation career I continued with my commercial property work as a solicitor, alongside developing my mediation practice).

“A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself”.

Oprah Winfrey

The Authors

Roger is a CMC Fellow, and member of the CMC Board. Roger has also been the Lead working with the CMC to develop their approach to mentoring. He is available at . www.rogerlevittmediation.co.uk

Pip continues to build her mediation experience. She provides mediation, facilitation and conflict coaching services to a London housing association and works as a voluntary mediation with the Brighton and Hove Independent Mediation Service. She also consults on international conflict issues.  Pip would be happy to talk to any newbie mediators considering working with a mentor. www.ConflictInsights.co.uk

Neighbour Disputes: When Your Home is Anything but a Sanctuary


Have you been experiencing issues with your neighbours?  With so much time spent at home, it’s not unusual to find that issues are becoming more challenging.  

6 Top Areas of Dispute

Noisy neighbours can be a significant source of stress

The Times recently covered Britain’s top six areas of disputes (according to a survey of six law firms:

  1. Fences and boundaries
  2. Noise/nuisance
  3. Pets
  4. Shared driveways – right of way
  5. Trespass (mostly involving boundary disputes)
  6. Trees and hedges

Options to resolve the issues without going to focused on practical ideas: “Far better to find practical solutions than legal ones.  If a neighbour is invading your privacy, buy specialist tinted glass… if the washing line is bothering you, erect a higher fence.”

But there are more ways to resolve neighbour disputes than going to court or putting up a big fence.  

Managing Disagreements

The Brighton and Hove Independent Mediation Service share these 5 excellent tips to improve difficult relations between neighbours:

  1. The more understanding the better – it may seem hard, but if you can show understanding towards them, they are much more likely to show understanding to you.
  2. Take a moment – take time to calm down and reflect before contacting the other person
  3. Explain your concerns – explain why you are finding it difficult and request a change that would help (eg “I finish work at midnight so when I get woken up because you put the TV on at 6am, it means I don’t get enough sleep. Please keep things quiet until after 8am.”)
  4. Offer to listen to the other person’s point of view – people are more willing to compromise when they feel their point of view has been heard and understood.
  5. See if it’s possible to agree a plan – or some changes – that would work for you both.

Bringing in a third party to facilitate a discussion can also be helpful and give you and your neighbour a chance to put the stress behind you and move on. Get in touch to talk through the options – you don’t have to do this alone.

“I get so emotional, baby”: Working with emotion in conflict


Emotional response to conflict

An uncommon response to conflict

Lots of us have an emotional reaction to being in conflict.  The heart starts to race, breathing shallows and blood rushes to the head.  For some, the red mist descends, and they are in fight mode. This is often seen as a negative and they are told not to be ‘so emotional’.  There’s a perception that when someone is considered to be controlled by their emotions, they are not rational.

But is it such a bad thing to be emotional? What happens if we accept emotions are a natural part of conflict?  

It’s natural to experience an emotional reaction when dealing with an issue where you are in conflict with someone else.  Surely, it would get easier to talk about the difficult issues without the added stress of feeling ashamed about our reactions?

Working with your emotions

In a great talk recently for the Harvard Programme on Negotiation on leadership, Professor Rob Wilkinson discussed emotions.  He acknowledges that it’s understandable to take challenge personally, especially when you feel committed to what you’re doing. That challenge may trigger an emotional reaction.  Beating yourself up about that is unlikely to help.

His advice – it’s ok to recognise that you are experiencing emotional response; human beings have survived because we have emotions.  So, after accepting this is normal, what next?  

There are lots of techniques that can help you to regulate your emotions – simply shifting your focus to your breath is often recommended and can be very helpful. Thinking about managing your inner chimp works for many.

Conflict Coaching

If you find that your emotions are getting in the way of managing a conflict, perhaps it’s time to try something different.  Conflict coaching can help you to manage your emotions and even use them to your advantage.

3 Conflict Insights: from war-zones to mediation


Working in Helmand or Mogadishu looks very different to working in London or Hove, where I’m now based. But conflicts often have much in common. Here are three insights from my time working in international conflict environments that are relevant to mediation, and more broadly.

Conflict and crisis can be useful.

This needs a nuance before starting – it isn’t always the case. Not for the millions of people worldwide who suffer the consequences of violent conflicts. But often, to quote Einstein, in the midst of every crisis, opportunity. 

A delay in delivery of critical farming supplies for the programme that I worked on in Helmand meant that it looked like we would miss the planting window. That could have meant a significant loss of credibility for the local government, who we worked with. Being that close to failing was useful. It opened up an opportunity to be bolder, braver and more creative as we worked in different ways and considered ideas that we wouldn’t have otherwise. We came out stronger.

I strongly believe that conflict can be an opportunity. It can lead to fresh thinking, flushing out issues and making changes that could have otherwise taken years to work through iteratively. Obviously, the challenge is having the skills to manage that conflict constructively. That’s where mediation and conflict coaching can help.

Clarity about what really matters is crucial.

Conflict can feel dramatic; the he/she/they said accounts can be very compelling. But that the drama may make it difficult to lose perspective and/or what really matters. 

The pace and pressure made it hard to prioritise when I worked in Helmand. It often felt as though everything was important, because so much really was. To focus on the core mission, my military colleagues defined their ‘main effort’. That means that, of all the actions that are taking place within a command, main effort is applied to the single one that is recognised as the most critical to success at that moment. It’s logical, if really challenging to step back and consider what is the most important objective. It’s worth it because the clarity this gives is invaluable.

Skilled mediators have an ability to flush out what really matters to the parties. It may not be the first issue presented. But it needs to be at least acknowledged and, most likely, addressed for an agreement to be reached. An external actor to a conflict has a different perspective and can help to identify what really matters to each party.

Understanding whose conflict this is – and my role.

There may be (many) more people involved in a conflict that those at its core, who ultimately have the power to reach an agreement.

I worked in Somalia on the agreements for the shape of the security sector and extent of donor support. One significant risk was that the interests of the donors and imminent timing of a big international conference would drive the agreement. But sustainability depended more on the agreements between myriad Somalia stakeholder, plus the popular support from affected communities. They were the main protagonists in the conflict.

Thinking about whose conflict is it really is also more relevant broadly. A mediator creates the space for discussion, manages the mediation process and listens out for the issues that really matter. They don’t ‘own’ the dispute, nor are they responsible for reaching an agreement. The parties are responsible. But, as in international conflicts, it can be beneficial to have that external actor present. They can provide a framework for the discussion and help the parties reach an agreement.

If you’re affected by a conflict and would like to explore your options then I’d love to talk to you.

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10 Top Tips From a Multi-party Zoom Mediation


A recent online Zoom mediation with three parties and 12 participants gave us a chance to reconsider some best practice when dealing with multi-party, multi-participant mediations.  

Roger’s mediation didn’t have quite so many participants, but yours might. 

(Photos: Shutterstock)

These are our 10 top tips:

In preparation

1. Supporting the parties from well before the mediation date to prepare in detail for the mediation can set up a more productive session on the day. This could include a briefing note to set the scene, explain how the process works and ask the parties to consider in advance different potential scenarios for settlement, including their WATNAs (worst alternative to a negotiated agreement) and BATNAs (best alternative to a negotiated agreement)  

2. Ideally, the parties feel comfortable with the Zoom technology; but it’s still useful to avoid making assumptions about Zoom skills and instead we suggest arranging a pre-mediation Zoom meeting with each party. This gives a chance to practice using the Zoom technology and you can share some practical guidance in advance. (https://rogerlevittmediation.co.uk/online-mediation/) This session can also be used to answer any questions on the briefing note and to help prepare the approach for the mediation date

3. Pre-allocating the breakout rooms can save hassle and time on the day, including a separate breakout room for the mediator and observer. It’s also worth considering setting up a couple of spare rooms to give you flexibility, e.g. a separate discussion with lawyers from each side. If everyone knows in advance which breakout room they’ll be in, that gives them the comfort of knowing where they’ll be, which is an advantage you’re unlikely to have in advance of a face to face mediation meeting. 

4. It’s important that everyone knows in advance who will be attending so there are no surprises, and so that the break out rooms can be allocated with certainty. This means that each party should also confirm there is no-one with them, off-camera

5. Checking your own IT is crucial – sound, position of camera, background (most people choose bookshelves or pictures – not a bright window), WIFI strength, and whether your laptop has an overnight software update scheduled that needs 60 minutes to conclude on the morning of the mediation.

On the day

6. Working collaboratively is crucial and the mediator has the scope to set the tone of the mediation with this principle (also helped in the preparation above). This takes some time, but can make a huge difference throughout the day.

7. Patience is also needed – the mediator has the challenge of managing expectations both in advance and during the mediation. Checking in with all parties periodically while discussions are ongoing to provide updates is particularly important with multi-party mediation, where the time spent waiting for the mediator may feel extensive.  Even where negotiations may be progressing slowly, parties really appreciate an update on the process to let them know what is happening.

8. Resilience – online mediation, as with face-to-face, aims to conclude on the day of mediation and it’s not unusual to continue working until late to achieve a settlement agreement.  Roger’s recent mediation lasted 12 hours, which is a long time to be on Zoom. Regular breaks are advised, but not always taken.

9. Travel worries disappear. For multi-party mediations in particular, Roger has found it is hugely beneficial to meet by Zoom compared with face to face. The pain of juggling the travel /location logistics disappears in an instant. It is also often easier for people to share the same screen remotely, when they would not share a room

10. Last and definitely least – don’t conduct a mediation on your birthday! Roger was fortunate: he was able to get away in the nick of time at 8pm. Others might not be so lucky.  

Six Counter-Intuitive Conflict Lessons from Somalia


Conflicts in Somalia continue to cost lives, draw in funding and demand attention from the international community. Somalia has evolved from ‘stateless’ and ‘failed state’ but the high levels of violence and conflict continue their tragic impact on people’s lives. I have worked in and on Somalia since 2013 and there are six characteristics of the conflicts that seem to be counter-intuitive, yet I notice that they occur often. They are not unique to Somalia, but often Somalia seems to demonstrate conflict lessons particularly starkly. This article describes the conflict lessons and their implications for delivering support in Somalia today.

1. There is a conflict equilibrium

Somalia is unstable, but there is a stable instability: balancing the risks and opportunities that could arise if there were a shift to either more conflict or less conflict. Less conflict would mean a reduction of donor funding, more regulation and greater expectations that Somalia should conform to international rules and norms. Greater conflict would be disruptive for business and aid flows. My sense is that this is not a coincidence, but rather a delicate balance between the various interests and power bases – political, business, clan, criminal. A war economy, covering socio-political interests.

That is not to understate the violence or its impact. Tragically, high numbers of civilians are killed in Somalia – 982 between January and September 2018, down on the previous year’s figure of 1,228 civilians killed in the same period. And there have been significant attacks on international community targets.

But, to flip this around, why aren’t there more attacks on the international community in Mogadishu (and elsewhere in Somalia)? For all the security provision, there are numerous ‘soft’ targets for those wishing to disrupt the fragile peace. Of course, attacks take place, but they could be happening a lot more.

2. We are not asking ‘why?’ enough; it isn’t chaos, but we assume it is

“It’s complete chaos!” – I’ve heard that phrase a lot and it is, perhaps, most common misunderstanding that internationals make about Somalia. Bluntly, it isn’t chaos. There is a system that functions.  But it doesn’t function as we expect it to or think it should.

It’s common for people arriving to work in Mogadishu with experience of other conflict-affected countries. We try not to make assumptions but also try to apply what we have learnt from other contexts. We inevitably fall into the habit of making assumptions about what we are looking at and we look for positive reinforcement of we know. Those assumptions limit the scope of our understanding about what is actually happening.

The best advice I received was to take an anthropological approach and keep asking ‘why?’(always a useful starting question): Why does it work like that? Why is that happening? Why is that not happening? What are the reasons behind this? What are the interests of those involved? Who stands to lose out from this happening/not happening? 

When I forget to ask ‘why?’, Somalia becomes much more straight-forward, easier to understand. That is the warning sign that I am viewing things simplistically, because the situation is complex and it is challenging to know what is really happening. The simplistic interpretation usually misses the point.

3. Al Shabaab may not be ‘The Enemy’

Al Shabaab is often presented as the primary driver of conflict in Somalia but the picture is more complex than this binary description: there isn’t a ‘good’ side and a ‘bad side’ (see the previous point on the dangers of over-simplifying).

Firstly, there are multiple conflicts, not just one and those conflicts are multi-layered. Social conflict and marginalisation is expressed through conflict between clans. There is a high degree of political conflict across the whole country at various different levels, including inter-state (e.g. Somalia vs Somaliland, depending whether you accept Somaliland as a separate state), intra-state (e.g. Jubaland vs Federal Government), and localised conflict. 

Secondly, there are many conflict actors involved, including criminal interests – it’s not just the Federal Government, Federal Member States and Al Shabaab. And conflict is business, e.g. for the proliferation of private security providers in Somalia. Some of those conflict actors have an active interest in perpetuating the conflict because it provides work and resources.

And thirdly, referring to Al Shabaab as ‘The Enemy’ also makes the flawed assumption that the group is a single homogenous entity. There are different factions, with different attitudes and intentions to deliver their aims.

So, why do people focus on Al Shabaab? They are a major and active conflict actor. But there may be other reasons. Maintaining the focus on Al Shabaab as ‘The Enemy’ is useful for the Federal Government to justify enhanced and flexible security, and the removal of the sanction regime. The international community endorses this presentation of the conflict through its focus on Al Shabaab as the driver of instability in Somalia, rather than using a broader perspective of the various Somalia conflicts. This presents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the conflicts in Somalia.

4. It’s the resource, stupid

Securing and controlling resource is critical for power – this is true everywhere, not just in Somalia. The priorities for the FGS have been for some time: 1) retaining power, and; 2) securing debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Country Initiative. Holding power provides the primary position to acquire and control resources; the delayed parliamentary and presidential elections mean a longer stint in this position for the current incumbents, at least most of them. Securing HIPC debt relief was widely considered a triumph for the existing administration as it opens the scope for new international lending to Somalia, which also presents new challenges for accountability.  

And conflict (within acceptable limits, as noted above) means money – money for those fighting (AMISOM and Somali security forces), control of sources of money (ports and transit routes). As elsewhere in the Horn of Africa, the instability allows leaders to operate a business model, securing funds for their ‘political budgets’, to rent the provisional allegiances of army officers, militia commanders, tribal chiefs and party officials at the going rate. No-one has the monopoly on violence in Somalia. There is instead a marketplace for this, as other commodities.

Resources drive decisions in the international community too. For many of the troop and police contributing countries, the income generated by involvement in the AMISOM brings welcome revenue – note the reaction from Uganda and Burundi when asked to reduce their troops numbers in AMISOM. 

Understanding the resource implications of the current systems and consequences caused by any changes is critical to understanding what is happening and why.

5. We are all protagonists

The international community has its interests in and is, therefore, a protagonist in the Somalia conflicts – overtly in the form of AMISOM, and less overtly in the form of the political, diplomatic and programme delivery. Although striving to Do No Harm, any intervention, or non-intervention, in a conflict necessarily means that the interests are affected, which influences the conflict dynamics.

AMISOM provides the AU with a high-profile mission that demonstrates the value of a multi-lateral African peace-keeping operational capability, funded externally.  As well as the resource generated, the deployment of AU troops in Somalia means that they are not at home, perhaps posing a threat to their home governments. Somalia also hosts a high-profile UN mission where staff on lucrative contracts can demonstrate their field credentials, allowing a good move into their next role or promotion. There are incentives for a HIPC deal in the international community too – for the World Bank and IMF, Somalia would become a client again and a new market for loans; for donors they can demonstrate that they are a friend to Somalia by supporting the deal. And donors have other interests, including continuing disputes from elsewhere with proxies and striving to demonstrate the success of the policies and programmes. As we have seen elsewhere, donor funds can have a negative impacts on the country they are focused on.

It is hard to find a genuinely neutral party in Somalia and all of these dynamics have an impact on the conflicts in Somalia.

6. Time to talk

In Somalia, as elsewhere, military solutions are very unlikely to be successful on their own. Political efforts are currently mostly focused on encouraging the FGS to agree the election model and commit to timing. But, given power and influence has been captured by various Somali elites, this is unlikely to be representative. It is not in the interests of those elites to consolidate peace and deliver good governance because they would need to surrender some of their power and control of resources. It is likely to be a long time before a more representative form of government is in place.

Other approaches to end the conflicts have focused on encouraging Al Shabaab defections and de-radicalisation centres seek to undermine Al Shabaab through incentivising additional disengagements.  Encouraging defections could be useful element of as part of a comprehensive strategy, but it’s not clear that is in place.  And there is a risk that defections leave only those steadfastly opposed to a negotiated solution to the conflicts in Al Shabaab.

Like others, I believe that a peace deal with Al Shabaab and other armed groups (ASWJ) and a political settlement are needed to agree an end to the conflicts. The prospects for that look limited, because those who currently hold the power would hold less if that were to happen. Is Somalia stuck?

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