Coaching playfulness in workplace mediation

Over the past few months I have been working with two directors of a large and very successful organisation who jointly head one of the organisation’s highest performing departments. My intervention with them started in a mediation which focused on assisting them to deal with some difficulties which had arisen in their relationship and which were affecting their department. Typically in workplace mediation, a month to six weeks after the actual intervention I will conduct a single follow-up session with the parties to review with them, what has happened since the mediation in terms of their relationship and whether they have been able to implement action plans and agreements made during the mediation. In this case, given the complexity of the issues and the challenges, the parties asked that we have regular follow-up sessions. I was happy to oblige with this, seeing the additional sessions as the mediation equivalent of a ‘motor plan’.

One of the issues we worked with during the mediation and which was continuing to cause difficulty between the two directors in co-leading their department was how much they communicated with each other about issues affecting the department. Director A tended to communicate more, while the Director B was less communicative in this regard which left A with feelings of exclusion and frustration and questioning B’s intentions. For B it was not about any intention to withhold information or exclude A, it was simply a matter of him not being in the habit of thinking about whether there was anything he needed to share with his co-director and to actually share it.

As a mediator who is also an executive coach, I tend to bring some coaching practices to my mediation and having explored the issue and identified that one of the things that could be useful would be to help B develop a habit of ‘checking-in’ with himself and then ‘checking-in’ with A, the time seemed right for some coaching creativity and playfulness around this particular issue.

In the moment, I had an idea from a coaching session with a client who was also trying to shift her habits of thinking and behaviour. For her, it had always been about ‘being sensible’ and doing what she ‘should do’ or what she believed was expected of her, and what she wanted was to access more of the lighter, brighter, ‘Harley Davidson’ side of herself. She dipped into being this person but only when she put her mind on it. The question was then, how could she put more attention on her ‘wilder’ side, to enable her to bring more of this forth.

In her office, she had lots and lots of (ornamental) tortoises from all over the world. She did not particularly like or feel attached to them but displayed them more out of a sense of duty – because most had been given to her and it was the ‘right thing to do’, to have them all over her book cases and shelves.

At the time, I asked her if she would be able to pick one tortoise from her display that could capture her funky, colourful, creative self and put that one on her desk as a reminder of that part of her self and how it felt, in her body, when she was in that ‘way of being’. She picked one… a marvellous tortoise wearing a top hat, who became her reminder of the way she wanted to be in the world. Not only did the top hat tortoise get placed on her desk directly in her line of sight, but through connecting with this tortoise, she let go of all the others. She literally packed the others up, in the process, liberating herself from them and liberating them from her office.

So, with the top hat tortoise in mind, I entered into a conversation with the directors about building Director B’s capacity to communicate more with Director A. The conversation went like this:

Me to B:        It sounds like in this instance, it’s not that you don’t want to tell A things, it’s just that you don’t remember to tell her things that are relevant to the department.

B:                  Yes, I’m really busy and just forget.

Me to B:        If it’s about you remembering to speak to A, would it be useful to have something to remind you to do this? To help you form a new habit of asking: is there something that I need to tell A?

B:                  Yes, it would be good to have a reminder.

Me to B:        Is there anything in your office which reminds you of A, something that when you look at it, you think of A and which can then trigger the question to yourself of whether there is something you need to tell A?

B:                  Nothing really comes to mind.

A to B:          That picture you have on your wall of Archbishop Tutu, doesn’t that remind you of me?

B to A:          Hmm… no.

A to B:          Are you sure it doesn’t?

B to A:          No, sorry.

Me to B:        Might there be anything on your desk, a small item that could bring A to mind when you look at it?

B:                  Not that I can think of.

A to B:          I’ve got it, I’ll get you something to put on your desk that will remind you of me!

Director A was really excited at the thought of going out to find something for B to serve as a reminder. I’m looking forward to our next session to hear about (and maybe even see) the item A got for B and the impact it might have had in helping B to develop a new habit of ‘checking-in’ with A.

What I really enjoyed about this interaction was not just that the directors had worked together to find a way to address this challenge, but the lightness, playfulness and possibility that opened up through bringing some coaching creativity into the mediation space

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