Breathless in Budapest: Training the UN in mediation skills

Posted on: July 9, 2013

Last week I went to Budapest with CEDR (The Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution) to train UNHCR (High Commission for Refugees) in mediation skills. It was humbling to meet these dedicated people from around the world who work in highly challenging conditions in refugee camps in some of the world’s worst conflict hotspots.  They move location every two years, making it very hard to put down roots or sustain any sort of family life, making huge sacrifices for their work. I wondered what on earth we as commercial mediators could teach them that would be useful to their context?  After all, as one of their senior people told me, he was more likely to find himself negotiating with FARC guerrillas in the Columbian rainforest for safe passage of supplies than to be mediating a breach of contract dispute.

What became clear to me is that although the participants were very skilled negotiators, that to be able to use your negotiation skills to help others reach an agreement, while not pushing an agenda of your own,  requires a very significant shift.  Often the UN role is one of “honest broker” and the ability to demonstrate impartiality and thereby gain trust is a vital skill that mediation skills training can provide.

What I also learnt is that whatever the context, the fundamental principles and stages of mediation remain the same:

  • Create a safe space for people to talk
  • Listen to them and help them to work our what they really want
  • Support them to talk to each other in a constructive and respectful way
  • Generate options that will meet everyone’s needs
  • Agree on actions going forward
  • Record what has been agreed and how it will be upheld

The mediator’s role is to help the people in conflict work through these stages satisfactorily, whilst not taking on responsibility for fixing the problem themselves.

So, whether you are mediating a breach of warranty claim or a life and death situation with paramilitaries in the jungle, apply this model and you will be able to make a difference.

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