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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Being in good hands: creating containing conditions in group mediation

Working together in (project) teams or in other forms of collaboration, poses relational challenges to develop a capacity to work with the differences. Differences often result in opposition, tensions and conflict. Belgium has a firm tradition of solving collective work place conflicts by using a social consultation model (employers and trade unions). So-called trust persons and internal or external prevention consultants take up the role of handling individual complaints (e.g. sexual abuse, pestering), either in an informal or formal (legal procedures) way. Due to a number of differences between the two countries (structural, law, cultural), mediation is a popular and institutionalized approach for work place conflicts in the Netherlands, whereas the interest in mediation is of recent date in Belgium. 'Social mediation' is a new phenomenon in the organizational world, more specifically in Flanders.Conflicts are often ignored, not (properly) dealt with or solved by using a 'narrow' perspective: conflicts are individualized (e.g. 'Mary is the problem in our team'), solved by a structural intervention (e.g. splitting up a Flemish and French speaking department in two separate units), or by dismissing or transferring people. Organizations do not tend to look at a conflict in a systemic way and are rarely aware of the group dynamics that cause, influence or reinforce conflicts. Group mediation, where a conflict is handled in direct interaction among the relevant 'stakeholders', is an intervention that is not widely known or applied.One of the reasons for the hesitation seems to be that the openness and uncertain outcome of a mediation process creates too much anxiety in both leaders and group members. In this paper I will explore, also by using case examples, which containing structures and facilitating interventions can create conditions where conflict can be allowed to emerge, worked through and result in solving the 'issue', restoring relationships, increase mutual understanding, develop and-and thinking and respect, and lead to new ways of working together. This relates for instance to a clarification of the role of a mediator as a specific 'helping profession' compared to, for instance, a process consultant or team coach. Other issues that will be discussed are: agreements and conditions required at the start of the process, the phases of the process, (structured) interventions that provide a safe container to talk about and work with the tensions and differences in a group, and the potential benefits of mediation. These issues can be used as elements of a 'story' that could help people in organizations to understand and trust mediation as a constructive and potentially beneficial way of dealing with their conflicts. This 'transformative' perspective on mediation stresses mediation in conflict situations as a 'transitional process' and a potential road to organizational, team and personal development.