While in Japan recently training mediators, I got to thinking about the issue of pace in mediation. Just like the trains in Japan, mediators often work at different speeds. Some are like the Shinkansen Bullet trains, speeding along, while others are like the commuter trains, those that constantly stop and just feel too slow. So what is the right pace in mediation and is there a cultural aspect to this?

What do we mean by pace in a mediation context? 

Pace is integral to the success of mediation. In unison with energy and momentum, pace is used by CEDR as aspects to consider when assessing the competency of a mediator. Energy examines how well the individual conveys dynamism, enthusiasm and personal warmth in order to build confidence in the mediator and the process. Momentum requires that the mediator ensure the process moves forward, ultimately to settlement, if possible.

Pace refers to the mediator’s core responsibilities, to ensure, while respecting that mediation is principally party orientated, the process does not move too quickly or slow-down and stagnate. If the mediation progresses too fast, this may result in poor exploration of the issues, undermining later attempts at bargaining and settlement. Conversely, too slow a pace can be equally ineffective. If the mediator allows the discussion to languish, parties may become entrenched in legal arguments, bogged down in fastidious examination of non-essential facts and locked in an exchange of bitter unpleasantries, as well as getting frustrated with the lack of direction of the process itself. The mediator must pace the discussion, taking into consideration both personal and commercial needs.

What is the cultural context to pace of working?

In respect to time, Trompenaars Seven Dimensions of Culture[1] identifies two different models of time management; sequential versus synchronous time. Using this cultural dimension, the U.K. and Japan have a very different view of time and therefore pace. The former places an emphasis on clear, set deadlines, punctuality and focusing on one activity or project at a time. Conversely, in Japan, time is not so concrete. It is a tool, a subjective, mouldable concept and interpersonal relationships are more important than schedules.

How did this different concept of time impact the pace of the training and mediations?

Compared with the Western style of mediation, the Japanese mediators were noticeably more measured, deliberative and reflective in their approach; the mediations progressed much slower (as perceived by me). This was so to the extent that from a British viewpoint, the mediation would have progressed at an unfeasibly slow pace. While acknowledging that there were occasions where by objective standards, some of the mediations lacked momentum and were slower than appropriate; overall their style was not wrong but reflective of a different cultural approach to time. It was therefore incumbent on us as trainers to recognise this and tailor our coaching accordingly.

Key learning from the experience

Culture and its impact on legal and business practice is a long-understood phenomenon, but within a mediation context it is still developing.  In a professional capacity, we are a product of our socio-economic and geographical background and therefore we view situations through a particular lens. Thus, it is paramount that we be sensitive and alive to different personal and cultural approaches to mediation. While training in Japan, we found the issue of pace to be a challenge, but instead of dismissing this alternative approach, we did two things.

  • Acknowledge the danger of stereotyping cultural differences. It was vital to appreciate that just because I experienced pace as a challenge in this particular situation, we should not blankly assume this will always be the case when working in Japan.
  • We were open to a conversation about pace in mediation and the cultural specificities that applied in Japan, and then invited individuals to reflect if the pace issues identified were one of personal style or more reflective of cultural practice.

Finally, as a broader point, in an increasingly globalised world, with cross-border commerce and disputes on the rise, mediators need to combat the instinctive desire to stereotype which can be defined as “a judgmental belief about a group and its members considered to be an accurate description of individuals; the belief is protected from contrary information”[2], and which is never helpful nor desirable.

However, Trompenaar’s work can provide us with a useful framework for understanding the effect of culture on how people work by using generalisations “which are non-judgemental characterisations of a group and its members having general, not specific, application”[3]. These characterisations about pace in mediation, for example, serve as hypotheses to be refined through individual interactions and at all times we must endeavour to work with the individual, not the label.

James South is CEDR’s Director of Global Training and Consultancy and has been mediating public and private sector disputes for 17 years. As one of the world’s most experienced dispute resolution trainers and consultants James is responsible for the development of CEDR’s leading courses in Mediation, Negotiation and Conflict Management for legal and business organisations, the public sector, universities and professional bodies.