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.

20 thoughts on “Decisions!

  1. Hm, tricky. It sounds like you are leaning towards not doing it, and I am all in favor of having more free time. Free time! For sleeping! I vote against. (But I am lazy – you might not want to listen to me.)

  2. Oh LL, of course you would be brilliant but it sounds like you’re right in having some doubts. It could be very tiring and possibly unpleasant in the sense of having to deal with strong personalities who thrive on conflict. Conflict mediation in my mind is all about compromise and getting people to acknowledge the other’s viewpoint and trying to meet in the middle. Do you really want all those meetings upon meetings? And if you sign up, is there any flexibility in terms of being able to opt out at particularly busy times? I would also be a bit suspicious of the apparently inside track of the admin clique but if you’re up for it, then it would certainly be interesting.

    I’m also interested in your approach to conflict (which seems to be to want to try and avoid it). I know it’s easy for me to say that conflict is unavoidable and healthy but maybe you’re wanting to learng something from this?

  3. Your reasons for wanting to do it seem to be that it would be a good skill that could lead to other work or fit in with your existing work- but you don’t seem very excited by the idea.So the questions only you can answer are: Is it worth it? Particularly if doing it you may risk a chronic fatigue relapse? And what is the opportunity cost of doing it? What other things might you do instead with that time and energy?

  4. Um, honestly? No. I think you’d be remarkable, assuming that the clients were capable of listening to your insights, but a mediator is more of a referee. Your great gifts of analysis and truth-telling don’t belong in an environment where they must be subsumed under rote fairness and a ritual passing round of the venting stick. You’d absorb an awful lot of distress, especially being compelled to scour every inch of conflict rather than politely elide it. The drudgery and rigidity would outweigh the fascination of the stories. The six days annually might be a solid block, and who’s to say your skills wouldn’t be called on by the college, as a matter of urgency, again and again? I think you already possess all the skills that you could hope to learn during the accreditation, and that it needs to stop being your responsibility to make everything better, for everyone else, all of the time.
    It’s not what you’d bring to mediation. It’s what mediation would bring to you. Sorry if I sounds too definite, but your energy is precious and scarce. Spend it in ways that make you happy. This sounds like the equivalent of one of those investments that looks sensibly pragmatic, and turns out to be shares in Enron.

  5. Another vote for no…while it sounds like it could be potentially rewarding I think the risks outweigh the benefit…It would end up taking away from your own writing, scholarship, time with your students and family, and I think you (because I know you so well, ha!) that that could be very frustrating. I think it was fabulous that you moved out of your comfort zone and attended the first day but this definitely sounds like it could do more harm than good – beyond that, you would be exposed to a lot of other peoples’ toxicity on a regular basis…that would be hard, I think?

  6. Sounds exhausting and as if what you might get out of it could be achieved in other ways that are less likely to have an effect on your health.

  7. Bluestocking – it did help. If a strong woman such as yourself finds it exhausting, there’s no hope for a wimp like me! 😉

    Jenny – lol! You’re right I’m leaning against and I think sleep, peace and relaxation are quite stupendously good reasons for not doing something onerous! 🙂

    Pete, well, spot on. I think that the temptation lies in learning how to toughen up a bit with regard to conflict myself. But for all the excellent reasons you state, I’m wondering whether I might not just remain my flimsy self. The description you make there of mediation is absolutely accurate, and I do have many doubts about the pleasure there is for me in that.

    Ms Make Tea – you’re quite right. I’m attracted for all those good girl reasons of adding to my skills, pleasing people, looking useful, etc. I am put off by the thought of more chronic fatigue relapses, and there are always other things I could be doing – more reading and relaxation being prime contenders. Thank you for the good and sensible questions.

    Fugitive – you are quite brilliant. And a dear, wonderful friend. The comment about Enron was just a delight, too, and made me laugh. But you’re spot on. It IS a lot of drudgery for a few intriguing stories (probably most of which will circulate on the university gossip vine in any case). I think I optimistically hoped that mediation would bring me the satisfaction of reconciling people. But do I honestly think that happens a lot? No. And the rest of it does look depleting. You speak wise, wise words, my oracle!

    Courtney – your comment about soaking up other’s toxicity is spot on. It’s one thing I am afraid of – going home at the end of a long day, steeped in other people’s negativity and hostility and dispirited about the world. After having read everyone’s extremely insightful comments, I’m sure now that I won’t go for it. And you know what, I’m feeling as if I’ve won myself extra time for those things you mention, and that’s quite nice.

    Musings – succinct and to the point! I do think now that the exhausting elements of the job outweigh the benefits. Thank you so much for adding your opinion. I really do value and appreciate the help of my blogging friends!

  8. Sounds to me like you have already talked yourself out of it. The cons on your list far outweigh the pros…..
    There is probably something out there better suited to you, from which you might also grow.
    MHO, of course.

  9. Reading over the comments, it sounds like you are heading toward not doing this. I’ll add my opinion that it sounded to me like you were talking yourself out of it as you wrote the post. I recently got myself out of a commitment that sounded interesting at one point but turned out to be entirely unsuited to me, and as I read your post, I was reminded of my own experience. Branching out and trying new things is great … sometimes. Perhaps this is a little too far to branch out though?

  10. Dearest LL, I must say, I am in total agreement with the others, and by the time I read Fugitive and Courtney’s incisive thoughts, I knew there really wasn’t anything more to say on the subject from my own point of view, only that as I was reading this post, I was thinking, “Uh oh… oh no, no, Litlove, please don’t do that.”

  11. Qugrainne – I think you and other blogging friends saw this before I did, but I’ve caught up now! Does this mean you are back safely from Bali?

    Dorothy – isn’t it hard to figure out in advance what’s going to work and what isn’t? I have a mad compulsion towards opportunities; I feel I have to take them all. But an opportunity isn’t necessarily a good thing unless it’s backed up with the circumstances that make it fit with the rest of life. And I suppose you have to make a few mistakes and wriggle out of them to find out what optimum circumstances look like. That’s my reasoning, anyway! 🙂

    Doctordi – I really do take great heed of what my blogging friends tell me, and we’re all in agreement here. Not this time for me. But I wouldn’t have felt so confident or understood why so well without everyone’s remarks. So thank you! I do appreciate it.

  12. I am back from Bali… and completely overwhelmed. Work, home, etc etc. I walked in the door to the announcement: two grandchildren on the way! Oh my. Life’s complications have multiplied ten fold. Thinking about a plane ticket to Timbuktu.

  13. I vote no, but I also vote that something important in you is pulling you toward this, and that it’s probably an internal nudge for you to reassess how you think about and deal with conflict. But going through this training course won’t do much other than reinforce your idea that conflict should be avoided, if only because it will require this ludicrous mediation which no rational person could handle without a machine gun and/or a supply of tranquilizer darts.

  14. I could so completely see you doing this and understand why you are interested, it probably has great appeal to your inner psychoanalyst, yes? But from the sound of it the whole process is exhasting and you might be at risk for a chronic fatigue relapse which suggests to me as much as you might like it eventually, is it worth the risk? If you are feeling really good and your workload is such that you can handle extra, then go for it. Otherwise now may not be the time and perhaps another opportunity will present itself.

  15. Qugrainne – lol! And oh my goodness me, and also CONGRATULATIONS! My parents were presented with three grandchildren over three years, and then we all called a halt! I expect they sometimes thought Timbuktu looked pretty good too… Good luck with all your complications and may they all ease out into some delightful pleasure and excitement.

    David – lol! I would have given quite a lot to see the face of our trainer if she’d been presented with guns and tranquilisers as aids to her work. My money’s on her jumping for them.. Yes, I think you’re quite right that working on my aversion to conflict could be a significant factor here. I can see lots of benefit to working on that outside the boundaries of anything that looks like a job.

    Doctordi – I put that down to the huge intelligence of my commenters. Sometimes they use it to develop all sides of an argument, but they all know what’s good for me. No one, but no one has better commenters and I am so lucky to have them. 🙂

  16. Stefanie – you’re so right! My inner psychoanalyst champs at the bit! 🙂 But I am, well, tentative at the thought of putting my health at risk. And there are lots of things I could do this year with the job I already have. You are quite right that there might be other opportunities – I like the thought of leaving the door open just as much as I like the thought of meddling in other people’s affairs! 😉

  17. I found this a very interesting discussion.

    How lucky you are, litlove, to have a frank and friendly on-line community to offer their views on your life choices when you ask them to. I know what it’s like to feel a “no” inside and ask for advice from a trusted friend. When he points out my obvious feelings about the issue and agrees, I feel “off the hook”! But also, glad to have reinforcement for what I “already knew” somewhere inside.

    Like you, I am attracted to the topic of conflict resolution and mediation though I haven’t yet taken courses (there is an institute here, but the courses are mega-expensive). I agree with the person who said “keep the interest but let this opportunity pass”. You will doubtless find some other less exhausting way to explore this interest now that you’ve identified it.

  18. It sounds very similar to counselling training in that you have to be willing to completly sublimate your own ideas on what’s wrong in order to allow those who are involved to express themselves and come to their own realisations. I took a foundation counselling course and honestly it can be extremly draining if you do it properly. That’s spread out over weeks and weeks of sessions. Mediation sounds quite a bit harder, as all that emotion has to be bought up, calmed down and resolved in one day as you say. It sounds so intriguing, but perhaps the time is not quite right at the moment.

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