Ruth Sirman stumbled into mediation “by accident” following stints in three very disparate careers. She began as an environmental scientist with a team that worked on wildlife toxicology. From there, she became a mother to four children, where she would get her first taste of conflict mediation. Next, she ran a cleaning business for a number of years before signing up for a conflict management course. She later accidentally signed up for a mediation course, which she emerged from thinking, “that was very cool, I wonder if anybody actually gets paid to do that.” Since then, Ruth has become a proficient mediator, working with groups of up to 900 people in size.
The Evolution of Mediation
When Ruth first began working in mediation, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, mediators were not widely used in Canada in the ways they are today. According to Ruth, mediators were not used in criminal courts, in faith communities, or in families. Ruth herself was shocked to learn that professional mediators existed. She acknowledges, though, that mediation practices have existed for centuries, despite the lack of widespread awareness in many settings until recently. She has been witness to “a perception quite often when we find something new that we kind of go ‘Wow! Look what we have discovered.’ Well, we didn’t discover mediation, we didn’t discover restorative justice circles or community conferencing or any of those things. They have been used all over the world and particularly in indigenous contexts for decades.” Ruth sees the tremendous value in generational wisdom when it comes to conflict mediation, and sees professional mediation simply as a process that has been “wrapped around” this wisdom.
Ruth first encountered Mediators Beyond Borders International while chairing the World Mediation Summit in Madrid, Spain. There, MBBI gave a presentation and was active at the conference, and Ruth was able to speak with some of the MBBI members in attendance. Eventually, she was convinced to become a member at MBBI in order to put her mediation skills on an international platform. Ruth especially values the global nature of MBBI’s work. She believes that “there’s huge value in providing people with those connections that allow us to learn more on a personal level as opposed to everybody being in their bubble in whatever corner of the world they’re in,” and that MBBI is a leader in creating these connections. Ruth feels that MBBI has allowed her to become more engaged in international issues as well, which is more important now than ever.
Mediation and the Changing World
As the world becomes increasingly globalized, and thus more volatile, Ruth believes that mediation has an opportunity to alleviate some of the conflicts. “The more mediation becomes a credible profession, the more potential there is that maybe we’ll get listened to. And I think the fact that it is now a relatively mainstream form of managing conflict means that the process itself has more credibility than it has in the past. So, I’m hopeful.” Currently, it is often politicians rather than mediators who are sent abroad to help mediate conflicts, and Ruth wonders whether these conflicts would be better handled by someone who is trained in mediation. She cites the current hostilities between Israel and Palestine, highlighting amazing local work, including the implementation of an Israeli-Palestinian soccer league for children, and a program for Israelis to visit Palestine and meet its citizens with the hopes of inspiring genuine human connections between the two peoples. Ruth feels that mediation has the potential to improve the world, maintaining that “none of us is successful until all of us are successful.”
Disrupting the Pattern
Any relationship or interaction, Ruth says, has a typical pattern that it follows. Much of mediation, then, involves disrupting or breaking that pattern and facilitating the creation of a more constructive one. There are many ways of dealing with an impasse, and mediators are a resource that can break patterns of interaction and can act as impartial actors who are able to remain completely focused on the goals at hand. Ruth has been able to serve as the “pattern disrupter” countless times throughout her mediation career and was once able to do so through an injury that left her bleeding from her knee.
She was mediating a group conflict that was not going well, one of the parties had left the room. After checking on them she came back in and tripped, hitting her knee on the corner of the chair. The party who had left came back in at that moment and, not wanting to disrupt the mediation session, she continued her work until the group noticed she was bleeding. This prompted a frenzied and unsuccessful effort to find a first aid kit, and eventually forced her to use paper towels and masking tape as a bandage. Though this is quite a dramatic example, it was a scenario in which the group was in a rut, and the injury was able to disrupt the patterns in their conflict, providing them with an opportunity to work together to achieve a collective goal. The group was able to come to an agreement shortly afterward. As demonstrated by this example, our ability to work with the circumstances in which we find ourselves is a key component of mediation, something that Ruth strongly believes.
Article by Tess Hargarten, MBBI Writer