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.

Top Tips for Conflict in the Festive Season

‘Tis the season to be jolly.  But for many of us, it’s also a time when we experience conflict during those much-anticipated gatherings with our loved ones.  That conflict may be very visible – or it could be bubbling under the surface.  It’s still conflict.  And it can still feel stressful, uncomfortable and even upsetting.

Here is a collection of my favourite conflict management and resolution tips.  Some have been picked up during mediation, others from working in conflict hotpots across the globe and others from simply living and working in situations where conflicts arise.  

Take heart – conflict is inevitable.

Conflicts are part of life.  In any discussion where you have multiple views, perspectives, ideas expressed, there’s almost certainly going to be a conflict between them.  This is a good thing because it makes our conversations richer and more interesting.  How dull would it be if there were only one way of looking at an issue?  See here for our previous post on why we really need some conflict, handled well.

The challenge is to embrace those differences, and continue the conversation.

Listen. Listen. Listen.

Give those involved a good listening to.  Hear them out.  

Samaritans use the Listening Wheel as a prompt to utilise all elements of active listening: asking open questions; reflecting; reacting clarifying; summarising; using short words of encouragement.  For more on learning to listen like a Samaritan, see this wonderful book.

And ask questions in the spirit of friendly curiosity

Find out why they are saying what they’re saying.  What do they need to happen and why is that?  What interests or needs do they have?

If you find yourselves on opposite sides of an argument or issue, it’s all the more important to show curiosity. What has led them to reach the conclusions that they have done? A useful 1 minute summary is here.


And encourage those involved to put themselves into the other persons’ shoes.  Mediators will sometimes ask parties think through the issues from the perspective of the other party. As Gerry O’Sullivan says, “it’s important to ask the party to think like the other party with that other party’s thoughts, feelings and perspectives, rather than thinking about what they would have done in those circumstances.” It is a very powerful way to ease the antagonism/competition we often find in conflicts.

Try a different perspective.

To help maintain a sense of perspective when emotions start to run high, we can practise ‘distanced self-talk’, following the example of Marcus Aurelius.  If that doesn’t work for you, there are other techniques to support us to manage our emotions.  It gets harder to do that in a state of stress.  But that’s when you really need them. Here’s a bit more on managing emotions.

You may agree to disagree.

You may not reach an agreement or shared perspective on an issue. That’s ok. You can disagree on the substance without breaking the relationship. Here’s how:

  1. Actively acknowledge the other’s perspective using terms such as ‘I understand that…,’; ‘I see your point’; or ‘What I think you are saying is…’
  2. Affirm the other person’s views by highlighting areas of agreement, no matter how small or obvious. For example, say ‘I agree that…’ or ‘You’re right about…’
  3. Hedge your claims: say ‘I think it’s possible’ rather than ‘This will happen because…’ (Note: you can soften your own beliefs, but don’t minimise values! Avoid words such as ‘just’, ‘simply’ or ‘only’.)
  4. Phrase your arguments in positive rather than negative terms. Say ‘I think it’s helpful to maintain a social distance’ rather than ‘You should not be socialising right now.’
  5. Share your personal experiences – especially involving vulnerability – and this will encourage mutual respect. In contrast, reciting explanations or facts you’ve learned can sound argumentative and condescending.

Focus on the future

Many conflicts have several different dimensions – there will be the trigger event or comment.  But there are often many events, comments and hurts in the past that have contributed to the current situation.  Especially in family settings, the slights and hurts can last a generation.  Getting stuck in a tit-for-tat exchange of who did what to whom is unlikely to set the scene for a more positive relationship in the future.  It may be necessary to share your feelings and understand the impact of past actions.  But for the relationship to move on, it’s helpful to refocus on we want from the relationship in the future.

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 .

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.

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.

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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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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