The Light Bulb Moment—Interview with Gerry O’Sullivan

Co-Founder and Manager of IMI’s Young Mediators’ Initiative, Angela Herberholz, recently interviewed IMI Certified Mediator Gerry O’Sullivan about her mediation career, overcoming workplace challenges, and her new book.

Despite her summer break, Gerry O’Sullivan agreed to speak to me about our shared passion #mediation. Gerry is an Advanced Member of the Mediators’ Institute of Ireland, trained and certified in Organizational & Workplace Mediation, Community Mediation, Civil & Commercial Mediation and as a mediator for separating couples. With such a great portfolio and a wonderful personality, I am thrilled to share her mediation success story.

How did you start your mediation career?

“My mediation career evolved organically. I had been working in the community and voluntary sector here in Ireland as a facilitator/consultant. My role was in working with the boards of management of community projects in facilitating them to develop their strategic plans and to evaluate their work for government funding.

As time went by, projects would contact me to ask if I would facilitate conflict sessions within these projects, either at board level, or between staff, or between board members and staff.

So, I started to do this work using my own basic model which was: to create a safe space for people to talk with each other so that they might hear from each other something that they had previously not known or had misunderstood. From when I was a child, I had always believed that when I knew what was going on deep down for a person then I could understand their behaviour better. I would have a sort of a ‘light bulb moment’ when I would think: ‘So that’s why they are the way they are!’

…incredible opportunity to experience conflict discussions and learnings.

As time went on, I decided to look for mediation training and found it extremely difficult to find mediation training in Ireland at that time, other than for separating couples. And eventually I found an advertisement in the Irish Times where Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation was advertising a mediation training program. They had contracted a Canadian mediator trainer and the participants were to be from both sides of the political divide in Northern Ireland – Protestants/Unionists and Catholics/Republicans. While I lived in the Republic of Ireland, I thought that this was an incredible opportunity to experience conflict discussions and learnings … at the coal face. It was an amazing and very rewarding experience.

Eventually, generic mediation training became more available in Ireland and since then I have trained in workplace mediation, separating couples’ mediation, civil and commercial mediation and international mediation.”

What were the most challenging aspects and how did you overcome then?

“Strangely, the most challenging aspect for me when I started workplace mediation training was having only two parties in the role plays rather than my usual 15 or 18 people! As I had been working for years facilitating groups for various purposes, including finding solutions to conflicts, it was not a challenge for me when I became an officially accredited mediator and continued to work in this area with groups of 12 – 18 people.

…always helpful to use the resulting dynamic as a means of bringing about group cohesion and agreement.

My training colleagues were aghast that I could manage that many people and I was aghast that anyone could manage working with just two people! The reason was that within this kind of group setting not all of a team or group would have been the main protagonists, but they were part of the conflict context and cared about the impact of it. So, as long as the conflict impacted on them and the work of their project, they wanted to be part of the process and the solution. Therefore, it was always helpful to use the resulting dynamic as a means of bringing about group cohesion and agreement. I found it hard, at first, to work with just two parties without this dynamic.”

Did you have a mentor or several throughout your career, and how did they influence your path?

“I had always worked alone as a facilitator and during those years I would contract a person to do some support work with me so I could reflect on my practice. Then in addition to that, as a mediator, I got huge value from joining a ‘sharing and learning’ group with my colleagues. This was a forum where we could bring our mediation cases to the sessions and discuss any issues that we had. I used to hate making the 3-4-hour journey to the meetings, but I always returned home rejuvenated and motivated after the discussions.”

How scary was your first mediation and how did you manage?

“I think I have answered this when I responded to how I started my mediation career. Because my mediation work happened organically it was a continuous flow rather than an – ‘OMG I have my first case tomorrow’ feeling.”

After years of experience, what is your advice to new mediators entering the ADR profession?

“I think there are a number of things that I have found to be important:

a) The need to use good process and to trust this process. Whenever I am wondering if it might be okay for me to say something to the parties or to intervene in a particular way, I always run my thoughts through the filters of the mediation principles: Voluntariness, Self-determination, Confidentiality, Impartiality, to check if my intervention will contravene any of them. I feel that if I work by the principles and protect the process then I will protect the parties and my own practice.

b) The next thing I would say is that true and sustainable solutions and agreements will happen when a mediator teases out with a party their real and deep underlying issues and interests. The kinds of interests that they are perhaps not conscious of yet, or have not expressed. This, of course, needs to be handled in a very gentle and respectful way, taking into account the principles of mediation at all times. I pay a lot of attention to this in Chapter 15 of my book: ‘The Mediator’s Toolkit: Formulating and Asking Questions for Successful Outcomes, published by New Society Publishing in Canada.

…parties in mediation should never be more damaged leaving a mediation than before they entered the process…

c) Another thing that I have learned is the huge value of having separate private meetings with parties before bringing them together in the joint session, or in caucus, if necessary, during the joint session. I struggle to see why a mediator would not do this? To me, walking into a room to mediate parties in dispute when you have no idea what is going on for them to me could be seriously damaging to the parties and to the process. I firmly believe that parties in mediation should never be more damaged leaving a mediation than before they entered the process, as a result of anything that a mediator did or did not say or do. And I struggle to find how parties can be offered a safe place when a mediator does not spend this important time with them first. The book I authored introduces ‘The S Questions Model‘ and this is premised on the fact that many of the questions be first tested at a separate or caucus meeting in order to assess any contravening safety issues.”

What made you decide to write a book for our profession?

“The first thing I need to say is that I love training mediators, passionately. And the second thing I need to say is that I have become an author by default! 

While training mediators for the Mediators’ Institute of Ireland, I noted that when learners became ‘stuck’ when playing the part of a mediator in a mediation role play, they were always searching for the next question, the question that would help to create a paradigm shift in the thinking and approach of parties in conflict, and fix everything! So, I started to search for a helpful book to recommend to them but I could not find one dedicated to this topic. 

It looked like I needed to develop my own model if I was to serve my learners adequately and so I started a fascinating five-year journey of research and writing to produce a questions model as introduced in the The Mediator’s Toolkit: Formulating and Asking Questions for Successful Outcome.”

Gerry with Palestinian chikdren in Hebron, West Bank

Thank you Gerry for this insightful interview, which I enjoyed very much and I am sure the members of the Young Mediators’ Initiative will appreciate it too!

If you are like Gerry, willing to share your story to support the #NextGen mediators, please contact me. I look forward to speaking with you.

View Gerry’s IMI Certified Mediator profile here:

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