By: John Sturrock, IAM Distinguished Fellow 

Posted:  September 17, 2015

“The best thing you can do is step aside and let others get on with it. . . .” This remark by a member of the audience took me rather by surprise. It came at the end of our third, and final, event at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August, each entitled “Why Didn’t We Have This Conversation a Year Ago?” Over 200 people had crossed the threshold for our events, sub-titled “Mediating Conversations about Difficult Issues.” 

We had covered Theology Today with the title: “Can we take the Bible both literally and seriously?” Then the UK Constitution with the topic: “England and Scotland: Can we live interdependently whatever happens?” And finally, Climate Change with: “Carbon Dependence: Can we wean ourselves off fossil fuels quickly enough to survive?”

The events went really well. We had a live band, lovely food and much discussion about the nature of conflict at the beautifully laid-out tables of six. I sought to introduce ideas about why we find it difficult to have those conversations that we need to have. We had questions and examples from the floor. 

Then, each evening we moved into a 90-minute dialogue, which I facilitated with our guest conversationalists: three leading church ministers on the first night, two senior politicians on the second (the Deputy First Minister for Scotland and the chair of one of the most influential Westminster Committees, no less), and four climate change specialists on night three. Much of the conversation was fascinating – and transforming for some.

And yet the feedback was: “The best thing you can do is step aside and let others get on with it. . . .” It was not easy to hear. I had put a huge amount of energy into each event, sought to find a balance between talking, interacting and engaging with, and listening to, the audience. What did it mean? 

Well, I think what it meant was this: at the margins, it is tempting for any of us to say a few words more, to intervene when in fact we should stay silent and to think that our own voices need to be heard or that we have a vital contribution to make. At the very edge of things, though, we can learn that, however useful our words might be, it is often better not to speak. If we have prepared the ground, built rapport, enabled people to open up, and helped them to find their voices, we need to let go.

This is how we need to view our regular mediations, too. It is not about us; it is profoundly not about us. And yet . . . it is easy to be seduced into feeling that only we can help solve the problem, only we can bring the parties to a conclusion and that, ultimately, we are the stars of the show.

The following week, at our first residential Summer School, entitled “Using Mediation Skills as Leaders,” one of the role players said to the mediator, “Thank you for your help. I think we can have this conversation now without you being present.” It was just a practice role play, but he meant it. The job had been done. The best thing for this mediator – and often for any mediator – to do was step aside and let them get on with it. . . .