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I get asked what I consider to be the most important skills in mediation.
Three things are important when it comes to political mediation: (1) good management: you need to understand the context, the history of the conflict, the parties involved, and those who can be a positive force for change and those who can be detrimental to the peace process. You also need to have patience, empathy and the ability to forge alliances and coalitions of those interested in the peace process. Finally, you need to be mentally and physically healthy as the job is very challenging and stressful. (2) good will: we face many difficult conflicts, especially those that are violent and against humanity – while it is at time difficult to do so, assume that the people you are dealing with at the negotiation table have good intentions. They are still people. And you have to find a way to deal with them as people. You will need to carefully distinguish between the human in front of you and the person with an agenda. There are also many other actors who are willing and ready to help you out. It has worked out quite well for me to have a network of like minded individuals. (3) good luck: though we love to be in control as human beings, there are times when things are outside of your control. The only thing you can do for yourself and for the people around you is to set the path, but let them do the journey on their own. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. At times, you have a break through as a mediator, most times not. You have to learn how to live with mistakes and failures without guilt.
In mediation, especially in international conflict, cultural differences matter a lot. Be it the way you start of the mediation (the arrangements of the tables or allowing an elder or traditional leader to speak first) or the way you phrase your sentences. It is essential to distinguish between what is being said and what is being said. Typically, this happens at the same time: For example, someone at the negotiation table may say: Yes, I think this is possible. But in the same breath he/she says that to make things happen, we need more time, money, or I have to talk to my superiors or my people. The way people think, process information, articulate their needs differs a lot from one culture to another. I don’t think that this is something one can learn; it is a competence that is innate (within you) and that you have to cultivate.
There are minor, but felt differences between traditional (domestic or commercial) and political mediation. When I was practicing as a divorce mediator, I had a case where I waited for the couple to return to the session on the next day, only to receive a text from both that they do not need mediation any longer and that there have been able to amicably settle their differences. In this sense, domestic and international mediation do not differ very much in regards to the fear, anger, and frustration felt by the conflicting parties. Apart from non-state armed groups that use terrorism as ideology, most armed groups fight the government because of unheard grievances, that build up to resistance and rebellion because of a politics of exclusion and marginalization. The same takes place with couples and relationships. Once you are able to reframe the issues of anger and powerlessness, you do not need to intervene any longer as you need to trust that parties will be able to move forward on their own. Conflicts are part of life, but you can try to make them less destructive and more constructive.
Yet, political mediation differs from the rest through the three following dimensions:
1.) Political mediation is highly contextual. Therefore there is a lack of an authoritative figure, such as the mediator in domestic mediation setting, therefore exposing the mediator to a messy, muddled and complex mediation environment, where his/her roles are constantly shifting and legitimacy is conferred by both the mandating organizations and the parties at the negotiation table;
2.) Political mediation puts a different pressure onto the mediator as his/her task is pretty simple and straightforward, yet very daunting: stop the violence and work toward hindering the resurgence of violence;
3.) Political mediation necessitates a different approach, not compatible with the traditional principles of mediation, especially the principle of mediation being voluntary. In most cases, political mediation is carried out with the option of peace enforcement and a highly manipulative mediator, in order to move the parties toward quick conflict containment. Depending on the context and the situation, the mediator may opt to resort to international contact groups or joint mediation missions in order to bring parties to a negotiated settlement.
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