Mediating for the Long Game

In recent weeks, I have had the privilege of mediating and facilitating in different matters with representatives of four governments . On one occasion they were on the same “side”; on another, notionally on different sides. A common theme to emerge was the needs and behaviours of political masters who were not present.

The representatives themselves were very aware of the need to try and build good relationships with their opposite numbers. That required a degree of honesty about the political realities. I could sense that frankness was helpful as it built confidence. It also allowed reflection on what could and couldn’t be done. Critically, the conversations were possible because of the framework of confidentiality which prevailed. And we ate together, which always helps to break the ice.

A good deal of time was spent thinking about “victory speeches”. What were the needs of those outside the room? How could they be addressed? What could be said that would help get any agreements over the line? Paradoxically, of course, the representatives needed to work together to achieve outcomes that would be deliverable. In a sense, they had more in common in this task than they had with their constituents outside the room.

Such cooperation on matters of process builds the kind of goodwill that feeds into substance. Trust is built and understanding enhanced. Us and them becomes “us” for the purpose of the negotiation. There is nothing unusual in this. Sophisticated negotiation often requires this kind of collaboration. That’s where the input of the mediator can be vital to create and sustain the safe space for this to occur, especially when the going gets tough.

The prize is worth the effort, as it was in the matters of which I was part, as those involved made real breakthroughs in the course of a day, avoiding or ending months or even years of deadlock. Often, of course, there would be more work to be done over the months ahead. An important component therefore is agreeing some sort of protocol for future engagement, both in terms of communication and substantive topics.

Equally, it can be important to commit to meeting again, out of the ordinary run of the mill, in order to reflect on progress, address any regression and be accountable both for what has worked well and for that which can be improved. This can be the difficult part as there is a tendency to think it will now all work out fine and that one such engagement should be sufficient. Mediators and facilitators, therefore, have also to be able to encourage a long game, just as much as taking pleasure from the quick fix and instant gratification of “settlement” on the day.

BCC’s John Sturrock – Mediating on the Fringe!

SturrockJohn is bringing together some of his most passionate interests by hosting three shows at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe touching on conflict, the church, the constitution and the climate.

He will navigate tricky territory with topics which cause some deep divisions, posing the question: “Why didn’t we have this conversation a year ago?” Tackling climate change, the constitution and the church, the event seeks to show how barriers to talking about these issues can be overcome.

‘How we talk about difficult things will define our futures – yet we tend to struggle with discussions about our differences’ says Sturrock, who will host the events over three evenings in late August. ‘On issues that matter to many of us, we become entrenched in polarised camps, using adversarial language which in turn generates more conflict’

Dates: Monday 24, Wednesday 26 and Thursday 27, 6.30-9.30pm

Location: St Paul’s and St George’s Church, York Place, Edinburgh

Tickets are available here on the Fringe website

Read more here

More Reflections on Mediation


  • It really is helpful to bring the key players together; in one recent matter, the two senior decision-makers were among the best negotiators I have ever observed. We met regularly throughout the two mediation days to discuss strategy, the involvement of others, the squeeze points and how best to deploy time and resources. This whole collaborative approach paid dividends when the crunch came and they needed to bridge a very significant gap. And then, make use of silence….let them talk it through, touch the void, work out the realities, even if the answer seems obvious to the mediator.
  • Recently, rather than starting with a joint meeting or with one party setting out how they saw their claims, I invited both groups at the outset to prepare the bullet points for the press release they would issue when the mediation concluded. We then got together and brainstormed to reach a commonly agreed framework which I subsequently put into a couple of paragraphs for them to use. More importantly, the exercise identified what was important and showed that the monetary claims were only one aspect among three essential issues, of which a continuing collaborative relationship was also vital. As a result, we were able to prepare, jointly, an imaginative agenda.
  • In another example, as the parties signed the final resolution agreement at midnight, and prompted by a remark by an individual near me, I played a bit of The Winner Takes It All, by Abba, on my iPhone. Taken in isolation, that seems ridiculous. But it worked, when taken as part of a pattern in which we had kept spirits up through a difficult evening of drafting, during which parties’ had engaged in a musical quiz built around identifying a song, its origins and chart placing in 1975. This had helped people to relax at a very tense moment, and it fitted the occasion. I followed up Abba with Wings’ Goodnight Tonight… I then offered a sombre reflection on the contrast between the apparent triviality of the music and the excellent job each person present had done, naming them each individually, and commending them on the outstanding outcome they had achieved. This mixing of lightness of touch, releasing the hormone oxytocin, with the dignity and seriousness of the process (and the adrenalin and cortisol that stress inevitably produces) seems to be important. And finishing on a high note is really worthwhile.
  • Coaching individuals in a mediation about their and others’ behaviour will pay dividends if it helps them see themselves as others see them. Sometimes, that needs to be frank and can only be done if the mediator has built trust and rapport. Being humble and accepting that you may have made a mistake or given a wrong impression helps to aid authenticity, which is essential for us all, mediator and others  Encouraging and supporting the apparently difficult people is vital too. They are only trying their best as they see things. Asking bold, daft laddie questions can be empowering of others if they are struggling. And avoid telling war stories about yourself; that rarely works. But encourage others to share experiences that may be useful to the process.

A View From On High

Supreme_court_crest_(official)_svg12 May 2015: Lord Neuberger’s keynote at the Civil Mediation Conference 2015

“When I was in practice as a barrister, mediation was virtually unheard of in the world of United Kingdom civil litigation. When it came to legal disputes, there was litigation, there was arbitration and there was settlement. Of course there was mediation outside ordinary legal disputes – ACAS being a prime example. And some of us were aware that it was going on in other countries, but the general view was that it was fine for the Americans and Australians, but it was not for us: we didn’t need it…” [read more]

Getting to Yes – with Yourself


“In the morning when I look at myself in the mirror, I like to remind myself that I am seeing the person who is probably going to give me the most trouble that day, the opponent who will be the biggest obstacle to me getting what I truly want.”

So writes William Ury in his just published new book, Getting to Yes with Yourself. I have been privileged to work with William Ury on two occasions in recent years, and he is a man of warmth and humility, combined with clarity and great wisdom.

The distinguished co-author of the seminal Getting to Yes has come to the conclusion that the missing piece in all his writing about dealing with conflict is the inner one. Indeed, he describes this latest book as a “prequel” to Getting to Yes, the essential prerequisite to being able to achieve win-win, interest-based negotiated outcomes with others. Often, he observes, those who understand Getting to Yes fall back under pressure into costly and destructive win-lose methods, usually because they perceive others as “difficult people”, threatening to take advantage of them and to cause them loss.  We are, he says, “reaction machines”. Some of us will recognise this well. How often in a mediation do negotiations falter because of perceptions of the “others” and how they are behaving?

He writes that “very little in life may be under our full control, but the choice between yes and no is ours to make at any moment. We can choose to say yes or no to ourselves, to be either our best ally or our worst opponent. We can choose to say yes or no to life, to treat life either as friend or foe. We can choose to say yes or no to others, to relate to them either as possible partners or implacable allies. And our choices make all the difference.” In a negotiation, we have choices about how we react or relate to our counterparts.

I have often concluded training sessions with words from a poster in a hotel in Philadelphia which described the difference between something ordinary and something extraordinary as that little “extra”. Much of UK Sport’s successful Olympic programme, in which I was privileged to play a small part, was underpinned by the message that the difference lies at the margins, that very small things can make a huge difference. As a mediator, I see that often. It just takes a word, or a gesture, or a small concession…..

So, Ury suggests a number of apparently small changes that may make all the difference to each of us. Put yourself in your shoes –suspend your inner critic: what do you really need? Develop your inner BATNA (see Getting to Yes…) – who are you blaming for your own needs not being met? What are the costs? Can you take personal responsibility rather than blaming others? Reframe your picture – can you accept life as it is and not feel that it is always against you in some way? If you do, then what?  Stay in the zone – dispense with resentments about the past and anxieties about the future. Be personally present in the present. Respect others even if they don’t respect you – separating people from the problem was a central message of Getting to Yes; this reminds us that we can operate far better if we avoid being sucked into an antagonistic mind-set. Give and receive – Ury draws on the excellent work by another Harvard scholar Adam Grant, in his book Give and Take, which shows that thoughtful givers are in the longer run more successful. In other words, Ury says, moving from the apparent scarcity of the win/lose model to maximising gains all round can lead to a double – or triple – win. Much food for thought.

Reflecting the passage at the beginning of this article, Ury refers to President Theodore Roosevelt’s colourful observation: “If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.”

Finally, though, it is about acceptance and respect, towards yourself as much as towards life and others. And, for advisers, this applies to your clients too – and your job may be to help them to get there, not because it is touchy feely to do so but because it makes commercial and practical sense and maximises the prospect of real gains.

This, says Ury,  should all be common sense but, in reality, it is uncommon sense: common sense that is uncommonly applied. Which may be where mediators have a role to play ……


Getting to Yes with Yourself is available from Harper Collins

John Sturrock’s video seminar with William Ury in September 2014: