Introducing the case
“A lot of times I’ve noticed in my experience in mediation that the dispute is actually a symptom of a bigger issue that is lying somewhere. Mediation is uncovering something that is a symptomatic response, and it works to solve that deeper, more complex feeling inside.”
Anup Ravi, mediator and coach at The TCM Group
Marie Coombes as herself, the mediator
Anup Ravi as Nick, Principal
Andi Hargreaves as Philippa, Vice Principal
This particular mediation is based on the education sector but, in reality, is a blend of stories from different cases. The two parties today, Philippa and Nick, have very kindly renamed themselves for the purpose of confidentiality. The model used by the mediator in this scenario is TCM’s Fair Mediation Model, whereby the mediation is completed end to end in a day. The point at which this mediation takes place is during the joint meeting, where the two parties are brought into the room together. This means that both Philippa and Nick have been spoken to twice individually by the mediator, Marie.
In the first meeting, we delve into each party’s story. In the second meeting, parties are encouraged to put pen to paper and portray what they would like to say in a constructive and future-facing way.
Nick’s story is that Philippa is overly emotional. Every time he tries to have a conversation, whether it’s a discussion or constructive criticism, he feels that he’s met with quite a strong emotional response. He’s on the backfoot: he doesn’t know how to approach Philippa in a way that isn’t going to encourage an emotional response. But as her line manager, he needs to be able to have that conversation. He feels that some of the conversations have been unprofessional, have not necessarily been dealt with in the way that they should have been, and he’s overheard her talking to other members of staff as well. The biggest challenge for him is that this emotion is that he feels like he’s being undermined in front of senior managers. So that’s why he’s come to mediation today.
Philippa unfortunately was the victim of an attack by a student at this particular school. She hasn’t felt the ability to be able to communicate properly with Nick, because she felt like she wasn’t heard when she raised the potential issue previously. She feels Nick is criticising her in front of everybody – that’s made her feel embarrassed, undermined and undervalued. Philippa also feels that her concerns have just been ignored in the past.
The joint meeting
The joint meeting is the real gold of a mediation. It’s started with uninterrupted speaking time, which both Philippa and Nick are prepared for prior to the joint meeting. start the joint meeting with something called uninterrupted speaking time. It is about having the opportunity to speak uninterrupted and knowing that the other person is listening to hear, not listening to respond. More often than not in conflict, it’s the opposite. The beginning of the joint meeting resets that conversation and communication between the two of them.
Resolution in action
Marie: Welcome, Philippa and Nick, thank you for your hard work already today. As I said, this is a joint meeting. We’re going to start the joint meeting in a second with the uninterrupted speaking time and what I’m going to ask you to do is take the time to listen to each other. This is your opportunity to hear from the other person what’s brought you to mediation today. Those conversations that we’ve had this morning, it’s about understanding what’s brought you into the room today. As you know, this process is completely voluntary.
If at any point you need to leave, we will call a break. You are not forced to stay in this mediation; however, you’ve already put so much hard work in. In terms of this joint meeting, I’m going to ask Nick to go first, if that’s okay. What I’d like you to do is read out what you’ve prepared. And Philippa as difficult as it might sound, I’d like you to just listen.
Philippa: How long will we be speaking for?
Marie: No more than five minutes each or a couple of sides of A4 as a maximum. You’ll both have equal opportunity to speak. Nick, would you start whenever you’re ready?
Nick’s uninterrupted speaking time
Nick: This is extremely uncomfortable. I need to be able to communicate with you effectively, I recognise that I might not have fully understood the impact the attack had on you, and the support you need. I need you to know, I will listen. But the final decision on anything sits with me as Principal, and I need support to manage my own work/life balance, which means I need you to stop this emotional dysregulation. I want you to know that I’m here, both ears open, and want to make something out of this. Thank you.
Marie: I’m going to ask you a couple of questions now, just in terms of what you’ve said there. What impact has the situation had on you?
Nick: It’s just been really intense. I’ve been taking work to my home, and it feels like a big mess. I’m just not myself and things are getting difficult, both at work and at home, and I feel it’s all because of this issue that we are both in. I just really need this to end.
Marie: You mentioned briefly there what you need from today. Can you sum up in one sentence what that is?
Nick: I need to be able to communicate effectively with Philippa, you know, without feeling, “Oh my god, is it going to explode? Am I not going to be heard?” I just want to be heard completely. I’ve tried so hard and that’s all I need.
Marie: The aim of mediation is always to try and get to some form of written agreement. If that isn’t to happen today, what’s going to be the negative outcome of that?
Nick: The negative is huge. We won’t be able to work in our positions. If we are experiencing this, our staff is going to experience this, and our students are going to experience this. Everyone has a huge price to pay if this doesn’t get resolved, so there’s a lot at stake.
Marie: On the flip side of that, what positives could come from today if you are able to reach an agreement?
Nick: We could have a constructive, working relationship as we used to be able to work together well. It’ll be of a solid force with all of us swimming in the same direction. As Principal and Vice Principal, we are one unit rather than us struggling to communicate with each other.
Marie: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Nick: I would like to re-emphasise to Philippa that, I’m here to listen so let’s keep this as constructive as possible.
Marie: Philippa, when you’re ready, if you’d like to read out what’s what you’ve prepared.
Philippa’s uninterrupted speaking time
Philippa: I’ve worked really hard at school for some time now as Vice Principal. It’s a challenging role but also really rewarding because of the impact we at the school can make on children’s lives. It’s vulnerable children who are at risk. You, Nick, are fully aware that I was attacked by a student; you are fully aware that I had raised issues and provided you and the school with solutions for safeguarding and how we could monitor the potential for violent behaviour. You’re also fully aware that no action was taken against that student. And you know, that when this was handled, it was handled really badly by yourself and the school, and that I’ve been off work, having been diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety and depression. My concerns were just ignored, only for me to be proven right in the worst possible way. When I was attacked, it’s your fault. It’s got this far. And I feel that the attack could have been avoided. I was not taken seriously. Now that I’m suffering so much and finding it really hard to get back on my feet, you’re not helping me. You’re taking parts of my job away from me, with no explanation why. The impact you’re having on me is one of exacerbation, which is adding to my poor mental health. Why do you keep criticising me in front of everyone? I feel like one of our vulnerable at-risk children. I need you to respect and trust me and I need to feel psychologically safe at work. I simply don’t and I’m not sure I can work with you anymore. The initial mediation by those awful HR people didn’t work. It’s so embarrassing to have to sit here and say all of this all over again.
Marie: Is there anything you’d like to add that you haven’t already said in terms of the impact of this issue?
Philippa: I’m not sleeping at night, and I can’t hold my head up high. I can’t leave my bedroom and my family are worried about me.
Marie: Could you narrow your needs down to just one thing that you need from today?
Philippa: I need trust and respect from Nick. I used to have it, and it’s gone. I need it back.
Marie: If you’re not able to reach an agreement and rebuild that trust and respect, what will be the negative consequences?
Philippa: I just don’t even want to go there. Marie, I’m frightened for the future and frightened for myself. I don’t think I’ll have a job.
Marie: Let’s flip that around. If you are able to get that trust and respect back today, what will be the positive consequences?
Philippa: It would be amazing. I’d have faith in myself. I’d have to get over what the staff thinks of me because of what Nick’s done to me. But if Nick could trust and respect me, I think everything else will fall in line.
Marie: I’m now going to summarise what both of you have just said. Both of you have referenced this student attack. In terms of the impact, Nick, you said that to you, it’s possible that you’ve underestimated the impact it’s had on Philippa and therefore you’ve maybe not necessarily supported her in the best way. And Philippa, it’s been clearly visible the impact that this whole situation has had on you. And you started off this by saying that you’re finding it hard to talk today.
One of the key things that you need, Nick, is to be able to communicate effectively, to be able to communicate in a way that the other person is listening and engaging. You refer to Philippa’s engagement with you as emotional dysregulation. But there’s also a piece there around being able to understand those emotions and helping Philippa find ways of being able to control those. One of the key things you’re both looking for is trust and respect, Nick.
In terms of yourself, Philippa, you felt disrespected because you raised these concerns quite a few times and felt you’ve been ignored and not listened to. There’s definitely some overlap there in terms of trust and respect moving forward.
You’ve both found these last few months very challenging and difficult. I appreciate you have been through a mediation before. I’d like to think that the mediation you’re going through now is very different from that one, because it is about making sure that your voices are heard by an impartial person as opposed to somebody that you work with. That always puts a different spin on things. You’ve both talked about the impact on you: it’s uncomfortable, intense and affecting you at home. In terms of what you both need today, there’s a mutual need for communication, trust and respect. In terms of the negative consequences, you both recognise this can’t continue, but for positive consequences, I get the impression from both of you that the sky’s the limit. Nick, from your point of view, you were talking about becoming a solid force or one unit; from yourself, Philippa, I could just see the relief, go through your body, the second I mentioned a positive outcome. It’s like everything just floated away and you were visibly relieved.
Philippa: I don’t know what emotional dysregulation is. What is that?
Marie: This is your opportunity to ask those questions. Nick, would you like to explain a little bit more detail what you meant by that?
Nick: Emotional dysregulation is when you don’t have control of your emotions. When we are trying to have a conversation, or I’m giving feedback or constructive criticism, there’s an emotional overload. It’s just no control of strong emotions so much so that we’re not dealing with the issue, we’re dealing with your emotions.
Philippa: It feels like a label that’s thrust upon me, you know, I’ve got PTSD, I’ve got anxiety, I’ve got depression and now I’ve got emotional dysregulation. What else do I need? It just feels like you’re attacking me all the time.
Nick: It’s not meant as an attack. It’s meant as something for you to realise that this is what is going on. You know, in you keep saying you’ve got PTSD, you got anxiety. But you need to let go of that and take ownership of your work.
Marie: Let me just jump in here. Obviously, emotion is a huge part of what the two of you are going through at the moment. Philippa, is there anything that you need to help you start walking that road to being able to let it go? What do you need today?
Philippa: What came into my mind was that I like to bring my dog into work because I need to feel psychologically safe. I just need somebody to be able to just hug when it’s all getting too much. I have difficulty getting out of the house and I need something with me.
Marie: Is there somebody within the workplace that you can currently trust that you can talk to and that also makes you feel safe?
Philippa: Well, it used to be Nick.
Marie: What changed?
Philippa: I was attacked, and I tried to bring it up before. Nobody takes me seriously. I think Nick feels guilty because it wasn’t taken on board.
Nick: We work in a school with children are vulnerable and at risk. We can’t take action and reprimand these children. They’re already vulnerable, you know that more than anyone, we’ve worked together on these very subject matters. These children need tender care and love, and we are bringing them up in a very safe environment. We need to reflect upon what triggered that kid to attack you, what needs to be done to prevent this, and what we are doing wrong.
Philippa: So, you’re saying I kicked the kid off? It was my fault?
Nick: I’m not saying that. That’s exactly my point: you jump to conclusions. I’m trying to say that we need to sit and figure that out.
Philippa: What does that look like? Rather than using all these words because it feels as though it’s my fault all the time. What are you prepared to do?
Nick: I would love to do is sit with you and investigate what happened exactly, what caused that situation and what is going on with that child before we slap them in their hand for doing something wrong. We already deal with these sorts of issues in our school.
Philippa: I do know that I don’t want that child to be reprimanded, but it just felt as though it didn’t matter what had happened to me. We are there for the children. I’ve always been there for the children.
Nick: Thank you for saying that. It’s unfortunate that you got attacked by that child and it’s also great to hear you say that I don’t want the child to be facing any punishment. I would love to sit with you, put what happened aside, and then work professionally to figure out how we can avoid this. Today it’s you; tomorrow it could be someone else. I’ve been trying to talk to you about this for a long time.
Philippa: You haven’t – you just keep attacking me. I feel as though you’re pushing me out because you feel guilty. The child needs to be safe, but I don’t feel safe. What are you going to do about that?
Marie: You’ve already made a little bit of progress there in terms of what you might be able to do post mediation, but what I don’t want to do is lose sight of the things that are still sitting behind that one of those things is about this emotion, and Philippa’s particular need for psychological safety, which is affecting your ability to communicate properly. That feels like the core issue at this moment in time.
The attack itself and what comes after that, we’ll come back to that. We’ll just park it for a second. But I do want to support you in exploring a little bit more about those emotions and about how you both can feel safe, because it sounds like there’s two kinds of safety here. One, Nick, is related to feeling in a safe environment to communicate. And you said something earlier on about dealing with the issue rather than keep dealing with the emotion. And from yourself, Philippa, it’s about your safety. You mentioned about bringing your dog in, and to me a dog represents unconditional love. Philippa has more of a physical safety, whereas yours Nick is more around safety and communication. What do you both need to get there?
Nick: Being labelled and called names with Philippa saying I’m guilty and not taking any action needs to stop. It’s far from that. Philippa having unprofessional conversations has led to a bunch of other staff members who are thinking that I’m guilty and doing something wrong. As the Principal, I have certain responsibilities and I’m accountable for certain things. I need to be able to have a conversation with my Vice Principal. It’s a need for that safety to stop labelling me and focus on the issue. We don’t need that negativity in our in our school, especially when we need our teachers to be strong to be able to be support our children and keep a very happy environment.
Marie: Philippa, you talked earlier around the label around emotional dysregulation. What I think I’m hearing is that focus on labels, instead of maybe focusing on individuals. Is that where you both are now?
Nick: Yeah, I think so.
Philippa: I think you’re right. But the bigger, wider issue for me is that my personal problem hasn’t been investigated. Whilst we want to keep the children safe, they are vulnerable already. I brought up a whole load of things about how we could monitor the potential for physical violence and aggression. Can we go back to that? Can we look at this incident with that lens on without apportioning any blame, to identify what happened, so that we can hopefully be in a better place for the future for these children? I’m prepared to do that, and forget about myself, if Nick can show me some respect, and dignity.
Marie: What do you mean by respect and dignity, Philippa?
Philippa: I feel like I’m being told off as the silly little child in the corner. It just makes me feel like a recalcitrant child. We’re not being adult to adult here.
Laying the foundations for resolution
Marie: I sense this frustration that sits behind this, and it sounds like the frustration is affecting that communication. You’ve both said that respect is a big thing. You both said that communication is a big thing and that you’re not being listened to. For communication going forward: Nick, what’s one thing Philippa can stop, one thing she can start and one thing she can continue in terms of communication?
Nick: I’d like Philippa to stop calling me names and taking things from the past. What I’d like is to start having conversations about how we can move forward from here. I would love to start having constructive conversations like that. What I’d like to continue is for Philippa to continue to show the love and care that she has for children. She’s great at that and I really miss that.
Marie: Philippa, would you like to respond to that and provide your stop/start/continue?
Philippa: I think that was such a nice thing to say and I’d be very happy to do all of that. I feel a bit sheepish because I was going to say I wanted him to stop being arrogant. I’ll be honest, that was I felt. My start is for Nick to have more concern for the children and staff. And my continue is to be the great principal as he was before all of this.
Marie: Nick, would you like to respond to that?
Nick: What exactly do you mean by stopping being arrogant? We both are quite passionate about our work, and we take a lot of pride in our children, and we feel very, very strongly that we are there for these kids. Obviously, emotions are running high and there are certain things that like I’m passionate about. Is that coming across that I’m being arrogant?
Philippa: It was about when I felt very much like a naughty child being reprimanded. If you could be the person that uplifted me, like you did in your stop/start/continue, I think this could have legs.
Nick: I think we should sit, look at this proposal and see how we can go forward. There are a lot of people who need for us to do this, including you and me.
Philippa: What happens when it goes wrong?
Marie: This is a good place to take a five-minute break. It sounds like you’re getting into a better solution right now, so I want to create some space for you to be able to really delve into those solutions. You can continue to show each other the respect that has been in the room for the last few minutes and use this to think about how you can move forward. When we come back into the room, we’ll start really delving into what those solutions might look like. We can prevent issues from escalating in the future by forming an agreement: the dispute resolution clause. It’s there to help you manage any future disputes so that you don’t end up down this path again, or so that you don’t have to take formal action. It creates space for you to be able to resolve things informally, continuously. Not just today, but forever.
If you missed the mock mediation and you’d like to catch up, you can watch the full video below.
Robyn Marsh: Senior Communications Executive at The TCM Group