I spent all of yesterday afternoon in an introductory session for conflict mediation and now simply cannot decide whether I should apply for one of the five volunteer posts the university is advertising to fill. Let me fill you in a bit. Several weeks ago now, I noticed the call for volunteers come round on the email. It said that accredited training was being offered, and those chosen would not have to give more than six days in any year to mediation projects. Well, that sounded not too bad, and my reclusive tendencies are balanced out by a fascination with people problems. I tend to think of myself as being permanently involved in conflict management ever since I started doing study support; the daily conflict being between students and their work, which has transformed into the enemy for them. I step in as peace-keeper, negotiator, intermediary, etc, repackaging the demands of work in a way that makes them look less unreasonable, and easing students out of their victim status. Well, on a good day that’s more or less what happens. So I thought that proper conflict mediation wouldn’t be too far out of my comfort zone, and that the useful training could be applied to a number of areas of my job, as well as in the mediation situation itself.
So, I signed up for an introductory meeting and took myself along to the university center, a rather dreary concrete building that’s an odd mixture of conference rooms and restaurants, so that the entire place is pervaded by the lingering aroma of whatever was on the menu for lunch. But it is well located, with lovely views over the river and the backs of college buildings. There were about twenty people there, and two presenters; one young woman from the university administration who was blonde and childlike with an overbite. The other, the training representative from a firm of mediators, was a dead ringer for Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City; she was even wearing a black suit with geometric white trim that would not have been out of place on her television counterpart, although her shoes were unfortunately not up to Sarah Jessica Parker’s exacting standards. She was professionally bubbly and energetic and took us through a power point presentation explaining the five steps of mediation (the main hurdle being to get the parties involved to meet at all), the characteristics needed in mediators (impartiality and communication skills naturally riding high) and an outline of the training course.
This turned out to be more of a marathon than I was expecting. Three full days of training, mostly through role play, then a week off, then another three days with the final day spent assessing candidates. It is, apparently, exhausting and emotional. Great. After all this Carrie took two volunteers from the audience and enacted a role play to give us a feel for what it’s like. I have to say that the members of the audience were quite brilliant in their roles, the woman in particular bringing a certain raw bitterness to her lines that was completely plausible. I did begin to wonder what had brought these people to have an interest in conflict mediation at all, and in fact one of the first things we’d had to do was turn to our neighbour and discuss the role of conflict in our lives. Well, I do my level best to prevent conflict from having any sort of role in my life so instead I found out all kinds of interesting things about the woman sitting next to me. She had a twenty-two month old son, worked in the law faculty (although had been threatened with redundancy while pregnant) and had a partner who was a lecturer at another university and suffered from chronic fatigue. We’d just got to this bit when Carrie starting calling us to attention and I had to restrain myself from yelling out ‘Nooooo, need another five minutes over here, we’re not done!’ Still, I was all set for the next time we had to ‘discuss’ some aspect of mediation. He’s apparently struggling on, trying to hide his condition although he’s suffered from it since being a teenager. I sighed; there’s a lot of us out there.
Anyhow, I ended up leaving the meeting feeling pretty conflicted myself. On the plus side, being trained in mediation is a useful skill to have and it certainly fits in with the kind of things I do already. My college would probably be very glad for me to have it, and it would lead to more work as there are plenty of conflicts taking place every day, as one may imagine is the case in any large organization. However… there are a lot of negatives to balance out the positives. The first is that I was suspicious of how many people knew each other in the audience. Turns out that half the university’s human resources department was there, and of course, what would be more likely than that the university would be keen to train up administrators it already employs. When it came to leaving, I noticed that a core group of people stayed behind to chat and a certain fiesta-air replaced the neutrally attentive atmosphere of the session. I began at that point to seriously doubt how many places on this training scheme would be actually available to teaching staff rather than admin. It was notable that the training course runs over three weeks in Lent term, making it practically impossible for any lecturer to take part in it.
Then there’s the amount of energy that mediation evidently demands. I’m certainly better than I used to be as far as chronic fatigue is concerned, but six days of intensive training in the middle of a busy Lent term is a big ask. Then mediation itself is crammed into one single day, individual meetings with the parties concerned being followed up immediately by the joint meeting, which can last up to four or five hours. That’s a great deal more concentrated activity than I’ve done up to date. And finally, I’m not entirely convinced of my suitability for the work. Watching Carrie Bradshaw drone on in that particular way…. ‘if I can just take you back, Robert, to a statement you made earlier, in which you expressed a dislike of being called a ‘bully’. Might we take a moment for you to respond to that charge and to say a little more about how it made you feel…?’ I wasn’t completely sure my collected qualities of irony, impatience and straight-talking would stand up to being silenced for four or five hours at a stretch. If I’m interested in conflict resolution, it’s probably because I’m interested in getting it out the way as soon as possible, and that’s not what mediators really do. Instead they seek comprehensive expression by both parties of all that’s bugging them. I did ask the instructor whether she ever lost patience with her clients, and she made a face but toed the party line. There was a lot of frustration, for sure, but she never let it show, and she felt she was privileged to be part of this intensely emotional process. Well, I felt the uncomfortable grinding noise of awkward truth against hopeful ideal. One may well have to consider oneself a handmaiden of love, reconciliation and closure to go forward optimistically into these situations, but I’ll bet the reality is a lot of Herculean patience pitted against ugly, human stubbornness.
So I am in a complete quandary here. Should I apply for a volunteer post – remember none of this is paid work – that comprises a lot of tiring work where the odds are stacked against me getting a job anyway. Or should I apply in less cynical frame of mind, thinking how useful the training might be, what extra skills I might gain and hope that my health stands up to it? It’s a very tricky decision.