David Purnell, Canberra Regional Meeting David Purnell

It is 25 years since I first trained as a mediator. Over that time I have done lots more training, and mediated in many hundreds of disputes — involving neighbours, work colleagues, couples, family members, business people, government and community agencies. I have run meetings as a neutral facilitator. I have helped design and run training programs, and have done assessments of new mediators.

As I reflect on my experience, I realise that mediation has, for me, exemplified Quaker principles in many ways. The emphasis on people working out their own solutions with assistance from a ‘third party’ affirms the basic responsibility we have as individuals for our own lives. The mediation process is egalitarian, in that it gives everyone involved equal opportunity to be heard. Integrity is assumed and encouraged, as any indication of bad faith will bring the mediation to an end. Above all, it relies on the basic belief that a peaceful outcome is best achieved through peaceful means.

The classic definition of mediation is ‘the process by which the participants, together with the assistance of a neutral person or persons, systematically isolate disputed issues in order to develop options, consider alternatives and reach a consensual settlement that will accommodate their needs’ (Folberg & Taylor 1984). A simpler way of saying it is that mediation is a structured, facilitated communication between parties in conflict with a view to finding a constructive way forward. The distinctive features of mediation are:

· Parties take responsibility for their own decisions.

· The process helps people communicate more effectively – it is a resource for them to use.

· It is a voluntary process, although people may come to it by way of referral, advice or instruction.

· The mediator is neutral about the content of the dispute.

· The process moves from the past, through the present, to the future.

· Mediation includes – mutual listening, dealing with feelings, rebuilding trust, encouraging direct communication, problem-solving, reality-checking, and reaching agreement.

· It is flexible, in that the process can be varied to suit the circumstances of the parties.

· It is low-cost and accessible, and usually available within a short lead-time.

· Mediation slows down the way people deal with issues. It works gradually and systematically through issues. There can be more than one session to allow parties time to reflect.

· Mediation is confidential. Notes taken are destroyed, and mediators do not reveal the identities of individuals involved.

In conducting a mediation, I try to prepare myself by spending some time in silence beforehand, allowing myself to clear my thoughts and focus on the people involved. I remind myself that each person is doing the best they can to deal with their life situation, and that I can support them in working things out productively. During the process I find that any period of silence that happens is an opportunity for reflection, and need not be seen as awkward or embarrassing.

I also make sure that I draw attention to the common ground that emerges between the parties, whilst not ignoring the differences.

The Quaker practice of being open is significant to me as a mediator. At times, people seem to be at a complete loss as to how to move forward, yet an unexpected word or gesture can lead to a breakthrough. I may be able to help by encouraging them to recall occasions when their relationship was more positive, and inviting them to envision a positive future. Mediation includes at least one confidential private session with each person, in which the mediator can explore with them options for achieving a result that might work for all.

If there does not seem to be progress, the experience of mediation may nevertheless enable parties to clear the air and to be heard in the front of a ‘third party’. They may find that they can at least ease the weight of strong negative feelings about the other person. This may provide the basis for a later communication that resolves the issues between them. Feedback to mediators after the mediation may provide evidence of this kind of result.

I usually work as a co-mediator, as I find this strengthens the process and helps provide people with a model of effective communication. It also gives me the chance to learn from other mediators ‘on the job’, and to debrief with them afterwards. Supervision sessions are available to help mediators share learnings in a wider group.

It is worth recalling that Quakers have been actively mediating since their beginnings. An article by Campbell Leggat in 1996 emphasises that Quakers have worked for peaceful relationships at all levels throughout their existence, by speaking truth to power as well as by mediating. He highlights work done in the colonisation of North America, the Crimean War, and in African conflicts. He speaks of the essentially spiritual basis for this work. The idea of Quaker ‘embassies’ became the basis for the Quaker centres and international representatives, and led to the ongoing presence at the United Nations. Many diplomats have benefited from taking part in Quaker conferences.

I know that quite a few Australian Quakers have mediation experience, and I encourage others with an interest in peace to consider joining us in this creative expression of our faith.


(Folberg, J. and Taylor, A. (1984) Mediation: a comprehensive guide to resolving conflicts without litigation, San Francisco, Jossey Bass)

Share This