Sunday, April 13, 2008

The mediators' lot may not be a happy one

Mediators don't decide who's right. They guide a discussion so the disputants can more wisely reach agreement and move on with their lives. Most mediators love their work, helping people beat their swords into plowshares...”  (From a  ‘Best Careers’ posting in U.S. News and World Report ,, 12/19/07)

Regular readers will know that, for more than a decade, I have served as a Director of a research institute in Sri Lanka, The International Centre for Ethnic Studies.  This is one of several non governmental organizations on whose boards I have served over a long professional career.  During the past several months, I have attempted to mediate disagreements between the supporters and detractors of a former senior manager, who was compelled to precipitously leave her position - and Sri Lanka - under turbulent circumstances.  The culmination of my role was a week of face-to-face discussions, followed by intensive ‘settlement’ negotiations in which another board member collaborated.

Here is how I described my mission, in a subsequent report to all Board members.  “The primary purpose of these conversations was listening.  I sought perceptions, recollections and assessments of recent events, including perceptions of ‘public’ reactions to those events.  I asked for recommendations as to what might be done to improve the ICES’ public standing, create an atmosphere of comity, strengthen overall management and financial sustainability, especially at ICES Colombo, and create a climate that would attract strong researchers.  While there was considerable revisiting of past events, I also tried to focus on problem solving and on the future.  My purpose was to listen to opinions, not change them, but if asked about my own perceptions, assessments and possible recommendations, I provided them, as I will in this document...”

In the conclusion of my submission, I wrote,  “This report has no easy solutions to offer.  There are none.  If I learned anything from my week long reconnaissance in Sri Lanka it is that present challenges facing the ICES, and the Colombo Office especially, are incredibly complex and difficult.  The one piece of good news is how many individuals care deeply, even intensely about this truly unique institution and its future. That I include myself among them must be obvious to all.  There will need to be compromises on the part of individuals who have shown little willingness to compromise.  There will need to be forgiveness on the part of individuals who have told me they would never be willing to forgive.  The goal of preserving and growing the institution will need to transcend the need to seek retribution for personal hurts, miscommunications and differences.  Over the next six months perhaps the ICES and those who care deeply about it can provide a model of civil, humane, compassionate, effective crisis management and conflict resolution.  But this is by no means certain.

What I learned from this experience was that attempting to mediate a dispute from within an organization has a significant down side.  When I began the process, I considered regarded all of the dispute parties as and colleagues (in two instances, very close friends).  I found it easy to empathize with different sides - there were many more than two - but when I tried to intermediate, this stretched the bonds of friendships to the limit and perhaps beyond.  An outsider could have played a similar role, but then walked away from the dispute without caring how the respective parties felt about him - or her - afterwards.  I did - and do - care.

Our mediation did have a successful outcome - we negotiated a settlement that was accepted by the principal protagonists.  But at a subsequent shareholders meeting and entirely new Board of Directors was named.  This was not exactly a vote of confidence in the work of my  colleague and myself.  I depart my formal ICES affiliation with good feelings about a job well done, and no regrets.  But I do regret having lost the friendship of some individuals whom I care about.  Perhaps the wounds inflicted by my attempt to play a mediator’s role evenhandedly will heal, in time.

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