Deescalating Conflict Through Collaboration. Member Spotlight: Isabel Stramwasser

Isabel Stramwasser is a Canadian mediator, who works with the Canadian federal government in the Business Dispute Management Program to mediate conflicts between the government and businesses that contract with the government. In this job, Isabel also provides conflict coaching and training to help parties manage their own conflicts. She has always been interested in dispute resolution, and feels that she is now in her dream position. She hopes that mediation can become a larger part of typical dispute resolution in the future, and believes that more education about it will help make that happen.

From Law to Mediation

Isabel has long been interested in conflict resolution, having had a desire to be a lawyer from a young age. She became a lawyer, and worked as a trial lawyer for nine years, largely in private practice in Canada. She also did a lot of international work overseas in human rights law. After this, she worked as an adjudicator for nine years at government tribunals, including seven years as an arbitrator and a mediator. Along with her work in law, Isabel has been practicing Buddhism since shortly after finishing law school. This prompted her to examine her role in conflict resolution. Over the years, it made less and less sense for her to resolve conflicts in the traditional adversarial way. She noticed that mediation allowed her to be more of a third party in a conflict, rather than being directly embroiled in the conflict itself. She has now been practicing Buddhism for almost twenty years, even taking two years off from work to live in Buddhist monasteries. During these two years off from work, she made the decision to change careers.

Having had plenty of mediation experience during her time practicing law, Isabel came to realize that it was a mode of dispute resolution that promoted responsibility and peace.  She took several programs in formal mediation training,  including at the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation, and set about finding different work. Today, Isabel works in what she describes as her “dream job” as a full-time mediator, working with the Canadian federal government, managing conflicts between the government and private businesses.

Challenges and Triumphs

Isabel is passionate about empowering her clients to improve their working relationships through mediation. She explains that parties generally come to her “when the conflict is pretty far down the line, and to be able to help them change their perceptions and see each other as allies in problem-solving rather than adversaries,”, that’s the most exciting thing for me.” Being able to facilitate relationship-building to the point where parties are able to solve a dispute as collaborators is what Isabel likes best about mediation. She explains that this is often the key to mediation, saying that “all sorts of creative solutions are possible when we can deescalate the conflict and see each other as collaborators.” On the other hand, she finds it extremely challenging to deal with parties who are unwilling to even begin the informal dispute resolution process. She explains that she cannot force anyone to engage in mediation, they must do that on their own accord. However, in her experience, “parties who initially refuse to mediate may well change their minds later on.” 

Looking to the Future

Isabel explains that the future of mediation will inevitably entail more and more digital forms of dispute resolutions, which have already become commonplace due to the pandemic. Furthermore, she sees mediation becoming more prevalent in the world of business, having already seen the federal government recently implement informal dispute resolution clauses in their contracts with private businesses. She has noticed that “there’s a real appetite for people to work in mediation. People understand the need for it, especially law students, lawyers and others working in the legal system, they see the advantages of resolving conflict informally.” Isabel believes that more education among business leaders would help mediation become a greater part of society as a whole, and that mediators have a responsibility to market their work to both the public and private sectors in hopes of it coming to occupy a larger piece of the conventional dispute resolution process.

Article by Tess Hargarten, MBBI Writer