Storytelling – issues that cut deep

Here is the second missive in my series about storytelling.

But, before you get there, four links that might be of interest:

  • Many have been asking about the band I play in. My weekends are busy playing at corporate events, weddings and private parties. It is really helping my work-life balance. Here is a link to the website with some music tracks you can listen to:
  • Leading mediator punches boyfriend
  • Clive as Coach
  • Preorder your copy of my latest book, ‘How to Master Employment and Workplace Mediation’ published by Bloomsbury here

One more thing, if you want a copy of the slides from the Mediation CPD session I did last Thursday, please contact Thank you to those who were able to join us.

Storytelling – issues that cut deep

Depth of feeling and emotion are huge driving forces behind an individual’s actions, be it consciously or subconsciously. Sometimes, as mediators, we have to dig a little to uncover these core stories, but occasionally conflict stories can bring out the most unexpected and unplanned revelations, to the surprise of all concerned. These can sometimes be an unwanted distraction, but usually they move the resolution on much quicker than hours of to-ing and fro-ing. In situations such as these we can say that the narrative is driving itself rather than the mediator pushing the agenda, which is something every mediator wants. Rarely do individuals head into mediation sessions desperate to get a huge secret off their chests, but sometimes the nail is hit on the head so cleanly that the dam simply breaks and they can do nothing else but let the river flow. This is more often the case with initially reserved or shy individuals than those who are open and forthcoming from the start. Sensing who has something to hide and who doesn’t is a skill that only comes with practise.

These types of stories are core stories of a sort, but differ from those just discussed as they aren’t necessarily the driving force behind an individual’s treatment of others but rather are present on the other side of the fence—affecting those who feel aggrieved. For example, if an employee who used to be bullied at school for being overweight starts to receive the same treatment at work it is very likely that all those feelings from the school playground will resurface, despite a gap of twenty or thirty years or more. This person’s past doesn’t influence the way in which they treat colleagues, but it does have an impact in the way they react. The aggressor probably has no idea about their target’s background, a background that may only finally come out at a mediation session with all the emotion that involves. Of course the whole thing may have been the result of a misunderstanding or a backfiring prank, but, like many issues that end in court cases or mediation, it could have been avoided if it had been dealt with at the very start rather than being left to worsen over time.

Using this example, it is easy to see how, during a mediation session, a couple of simple questions on the issue can elicit a surprisingly emotional response. Outbursts, if conducted in the presence of the perceived aggressor, can have one of two outcomes—either the aggressor realises the enormity of their actions and vows to make amends or the individual involved loses control of their emotions and therefore also the opportunity to get their point across, running the risk of weakening their position in the negotiation.

But what if two opposing factions find, through their stories, some common ground? The chances are that two people, say an employee and their line manager, who have been at loggerheads since day one won’t have taken the time to learn about the others’ interests, pastimes and background. Instead they have spent their days adding layer upon layer of negative association onto that person, usually based on tiny, trifling matters, until they have a demonised caricature of that individual cemented in their mind, which can be very far from the truth. It is therefore highly unlikely that any shared interests will be discovered before the mediation session.

Shared interests however can act as a very useful springboard to help overcome complete breakdown. They are not easy to achieve and it may take something so traumatic as a death in the family to, if not unite two people, then certainly break down initial barriers. Again this can sometimes require some digging for core stories, but on occasion the protagonists lead themselves down these paths of their own volition, at which point the mediator can subtly utilise any newfound connection to bring the two parties a little closer to negotiation.

Occasionally an individual with a painful past, such as the bullying victim highlighted earlier, will not only find themselves in a position where their painful experiences are relived anew but will encounter huge resistance from their superiors when trying to combat it. In these instances, a mediator may find, as was highlighted in the previous section, that certain individuals hold prejudicial views about a person or group of people that are hard-wired into them. Some in other industries will have what they consider to be solid reasons for their prejudices based on experiences, whilst others may feel that they have strict rules in place that prevent them from even countenancing the idea of apologising for their views and are determined to stick with their decisions and actions no matter what (for example, religious leaders refusing to allow female clergy because of Bible teachings).

Many of these individuals, through refusing to communicate with and educate themselves about those that fall under this umbrella, will see and treat them all as one and refuse to acknowledge that their actions may have much more of a significant impact on some individuals than others. For example, a female employee who has suffered either physically or psychologically at the hands of a male family member or partner may have a stronger reaction to male criticism and intimidation than someone who hasn’t. The aggressor in this case will have no knowledge of these events, having refused to offer her equal billing in the establishment, which starts a spiral of decline that will only lead to negative outcomes. One occasionally encounters people like this, but we must remind ourselves that it is not the job of the mediator to try and educate or change this person’s way of thinking (although of course this would be a great result), but to sow the seeds of change by trying to make them see the impact their actions had on the individual in question—to attempt to swap positions and see things from the others’ point of view. This is of course a necessary step in the road towards a resolution, but it can also be a life changing experience for that individual when the session is over. For every one that has an epiphany however, another will just agree terms and move on with their views unaltered. This can of course be hard to take, but, as we have already discussed, it is not up to the mediator to play the psychologist. We are not qualified, or suited, to effecting personality changes.

It is not just the aggressor whose stubborn streak can cause problems for a mediator. An individual with a grievance can sometimes find that the entire chain of command in their workplace is against them and they may then feel powerless to do anything to stop what they see as unfair treatment. Often in these situations the individual may request a severance package as part of any mediation settlement, citing the fact that they can’t work in such an environment, but for various reasons they can sometimes stand and fight, if not to try and regain their post then to make the public aware of this obviously deeply felt issue.

Weeks, months and possibly years’ worth of being confronted by brick walls, especially concerning issues that stem from past incidents, may have built up so many layers of defiance that the actual core of the conflict has grown out of all proportion and now reflects only a small percentage of a much bigger fight. This can undermine the efforts of a mediator to come to a settlement, knowing as he does that, possibly by admission or suspicion, an individual will be pursuing further retribution once the mediation has been completed. In these instances the opposing party feels no need to come to an agreement as they know that any settlement won’t represent the end of proceedings and will just be a concession of ground before the next battle. Again, as we will see, all we as mediators can do in these situations is perform our function as best we can and try to convince the individual that further action will only prolong what may already have been an incredibly trying time and ask them to include all their demands in the mediation agreement. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s important to recognise that we can only usually influence events on the day and not for the future.


Until next month,