“Listening is about more than listening with your ears, you’re also listening to what’s not said, listening with your eye, listening with your heart, listening to what is around us, because communication and messaging is so much more than the verbal word”.
It has been more than 26 years since Sarah Blake completed her first mediation training and it’s been so interesting to hear how much the principles of mediation have shaped who she is. In Australia, she works as a Conflict Strategist and mediator with a high focus on conflict-culture -and leadership working with communities through to corporate boards to help them navigate conflict better. Growing up with a father who was a mediator, and a mother from a family involved in social justice for the community, she has been immersed in the mediation world from a very young age. Sarah is driven by a desire to help people develop the capacity to engage in the hard conversations and aims to empower parties through the process without diminishing the emotions that make us all human. She recently joined the community of Mediators Beyond Borders International with the ambition to give back and contribute to the broader community of peacemakers.
Sarah brings a very diverse background to the profession. Thanks to her Master’s in Indigenous Knowledge and a Master’s in strategic Affairs, she bridges different approaches to decision making and focuses on resolution with practical result rather than just a signed agreement. Sarah also spoke of the influence of her anthropology studies where she learnt that “the role of an anthropologist is to question the taken for granted assumptions of society”. For her, this reminder has informed her approach to her role as mediator – to ask the hard questions so that parties can get clarity around what is happening.
About her job as a mediator
Sarah never set out to follow her father’s footsteps but as a second-generation mediator, recognizes the impact that his role as barrister, and one of the first mediator to be involved in establishing western mediation as a legitimate practice in Australia has been invaluable. Building on this, Sarah has developed a comprehensive approach to mediation, with significant focus placed on preparation. This includes unpacking the conflict mapping process design and upskilling parties to maximize their capacity to negotiate effectively. She explored with us how parties tend to get more positional the longer the conflict goes on, emphasizing the importance of early intervention “As mediators, we are constantly assessing the risks and we are trying to encourage the parties to reach a point where they are ready to problem solve not blame”.
For Sarah, this is the time that parties are then able to engage in better decision making. Working with various clients, from indigenous communities to compagnies boards, she considers herself fortunate to have a job that she is so passionate about. One of the most satisfying aspect of mediation for her is to see parties leave with a sense of accomplishment having found a resolution and been able to move forward. Having served previously as a director for Resolution institute, she is now an Ambassador for Mediate Guru and regularly supports the growth of the industry and the next generation of peacemakers.
Her understanding of a mediator’s role
Sarah Blake sees the role of the mediator critical not just to managing a good process but also to helping set the tone for how parties engage with those messy emotions that often drive the conflict. According to her, a mediator should be comfortable and ready to face a discussion marked by tensions and conflictual behaviors “we cannot help people through conflict if we ourselves avoid it”. A mediator’s role is to be a bridge between parties which means sometimes we have to balance being firm on process and facts whilst leaning into the emotions and feelings. “This is what allows deeper understanding to emerge between parties and shifts them from blame to problem solving”. Sarah says that one of the key skills to help action our role is our capacity to listen, she talks about listening deeply, not only to what the parties are saying but also paying attention to what the parties are not saying.
Challenges she faced/faces
Sarah had the privilege of attending the signing of the Singapore Convention on Mediation and has continued to contribute to global discussion on the future of mediation. One of the challenges she sees is the tensions between the frames of reference – the legalistic lens and the people lens and how these impacts complex decision making. She argues that: “If we only listen to the legal voices in process design for mediation, we run the risk of missing out on the human element, the people element”. Sarah suggests that mediators need to learn and understand how emotional and cultural factors influence mediation and the role of mediators if we are to play a role in sustainable peacemaking but cautions “we can’t have a meeting that is overrun by emotions we have to wrestle between emotions and rationality, helping parties find their balance”.
Advice to aspiring mediators
Loving the fact that many people are interested in mediation as a practice, Sarah acknowledges that getting a full-time job as a mediator can be quite challenging. For that reason, she encourages people to “do the training and do the courses but find the thing that you’re really passionate about and apply your mediations skills to it”. Sarah also encourages those interested in mediation to know that it takes a team, a group of people working together to support peacemaking. Some of us are great facilitators, some are great at supporting and advocating for parties, some are great at information management- find your niche and lean into that with an eye on how to best support good decision making for parties. And finally, as you start your career, Sarah recommends seeking co-mediation opportunities. This model is a powerful way for young mediators to learn and feel supported whilst ensuring parties rights for a good process are respected.
Article by Sarah Vorms, MBBI Writer