Trust the process – or can you?

Those of us who did our mediation training in the late 80’s were required to adopt ‘Trust the Process’ as our mantra. I think there were T-shirts too (or maybe I am just revealing myself as an aging hippie). While I can smile about the T-shirt I have adopted the message. As a teacher, researcher and practitioner of ADR I recognise the value of choosing not to focus on the ‘solution’ and trusting that the process will give the parties an opportunity to discover a good outcome for them.
But recently I had the unusual opportunity of watching 12 quite experienced mediators at work in 12 different mediations. Whilst watching some very elegant work I also observed many moments that were far from elegant. To my surprise, what I watched was the process getting in the way of the mediation rather than enhancing it.

It was disconcerting to observe and to be fair the observer presence may have contributed to some awkwardness. To my eyes the mediators were quite heavy handed in driving the process to where they obviously thought the parties should be going. Some went as far as saying ‘Well – I’m in charge of the process and what we need to do now is …’. Others simply intervened to require parties deeply engaged in recounting their experiences to stop and create an issues list. It looked like an exercise of power or perhaps a need to demonstrate usefulness rather than skilful use of the dynamics of the moment. I came away feeling that what I had seen was more about the mediators than about the parties and their dispute. It was less about ‘trust’ and all about thrust’.
I have been reflecting on this in the context of the professional identity theme to which members of this Research Network are contributing. It reinforced my view that in most professions, the path from training to practice is a series of connected steps. The lessons from formal training are interpreted and enhanced via supervision and ‘on the job’ learning from more experienced professionals.
As a calling largely practised confidentially and alone, ADR lacks the supervision and guidance which enhances and distinguishes established professions. It is another consideration on the road to establishing a professional identity.

This entry was posted in Dispute resolution by Dr Rosemary Howell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dr Rosemary Howell

I am a Professorial Fellow at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, delivering dispute resolution programs to undergraduate and postgraduate students. My company, Strategic Action, provides mediation, facilitation, coaching and bespoke training to business and government.

3 thoughts on “Trust the process – or can you?

  1. A very interesting observation Rosemary. I think this demonstrates the value of those “unusual” opportunities to observe DRPs at work. Perhaps we should try more often to research in this way!
    Your suggestion about supervision frameworks is an important one. While supervision and reflective de-briefing are a standard and structured part of practice in social work, psychology, counselling, FDR etc, not so much in general mediation practice or legal practice. Although it is good practice to reflect and seek supervision, perhaps more could be done to formalise/require these practices and/or to build enabling structures. Courses such at the JCU Conflict Management and Resolution Program certainly build skills of reflective/reflexive practice, much more than the “old” mediation courses that many of us undertook. Perhaps more could be done within the profession to create structures to facilitate the implementation of these practices, particularly for sole practitioners.


  2. This is a great post Rosemary. I think you are right to query practice in this thoughtful way which helps us all to engage with the possibility of reconstructing practice paradigms.

    This goes back to education/training. How much are moving on from the early courses in mediation training?


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