Promoting open, civil dialogue vital, says Graham Boyack
HOW mediating and the use of mediation skills can play a part in making Scotland a better place to live and work was at the forefront of the minds of 200 people who attended Mediate Scotland 2014 this September.
We gathered at the University of Strathclyde, where the law school provides teaching in the academic disciplines surrounding conflict resolution and conducts research into the use of mediation, particularly as it relates to the law.
When we met up in the week prior to the referendum there was a lot of discussion about the decision facing us all and, whilst there was great engagement in the process, there was universal frustration about the quality of conversation up to that point. There was a strong feeling that, in the difficult post-referendum debate, a key part of moving the discussion forward would be moving away from the shouting witnessed in some of the TV debates.
A dialogue where everyone listens to other points of view and engages in a way that seeks common ground was what people wanted to see. During the conference we modelled how such discussions could take place, whether on a national stage or in communities. By simply changing the tone of those conversations people became much more engaged and were asking questions that weren’t designed to knock down someone else’s views, but to explore them in order to understand them better.
As Scotland moves on from the referendum, such an approach provides the opportunity to keep the thousands of people who were engaged in the referendum involved in the discussions that are now taking place on the new powers that are to be vested in the Scottish Parliament.
At the beginning of our conference we were privileged to hear from 16 students from Baldragon Academy in Dundee. They told us about how they had set up a Peer Mediation Scheme in their school, what training to be a mediator was like and how they are now tackling disputes and issues such as bullying as a result of what they had learned through their training. Their story was often moving as the students explained how bullying had impacted on them and how learning the skills of mediation was helping them on a daily basis.
From work done by other organisations such as Shelter, Relationships Scotland, and the Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution, we know that the skills involved in mediating can help people resolve issues in families and help to allow people within families to communicate better with each other. That’s why we think there is a very strong case for more peer mediation schemes in Scotland. Not only does it offer the chance to help tackle a major issue in schools – bullying – but, more than that, it provides the opportunity for students to learn a life skill that can help them on their path through school and later in life.
In peer mediation the skills learned include listening, how to ask open questions, how to help people see things from another point of view and then, through a realistic assessment of that situation, how to either resolve a dispute or take the heat out of it to allow people to move on.
Just this week I was excited to learn about how school students in the east of Scotland were benefiting from an approach developed by Queen Margaret University that uses similar skills around dialogue that allows them to discuss and reflect on the use of alcohol, enabling informed choices to be made.
During the conference, we also heard how mediating was improving customer service and organisational culture in the Royal Bank of Scotland, how mediating is helping to tackle homelessness in Argyll and Bute, how mediating is a central part of the court system in New York and how mediating has helped people resolve disputes with their lawyers.
What struck me about all the discussions at Mediate Scotland was that mediation is making a positive impact across a range of areas of Scottish life. Even more so, however, is the great potential that lies in mediating more often. Whether helping our discussions on powers for the Parliament, making a difference in the day-to-day experience of school students or by helping families talk to each other, mediation can make a difference. This might be by helping to stop disputes from escalating, giving people the skills to resolve their own disputes or even by helping people to identify when a mediator is needed to lend a hand.
l Graham Boyack is director of Scottish Mediation Network www.scottishmediation.org.uk