Mediation and the Engineering Mindset

By Douglas Katz – 12/01/2022

Conflict is part of the human condition.  Be it due to limited resources, different view points or both, we humans like to fight and we seem to always be able to find new ways to do so.  Whether in our relationships, work lives or our daily interaction with the world around us, conflict is everywhere.  The good news is that as rational beings we try to find new and better ways to reduce conflict.  One which has gained a lot of momentum in the world of alternative dispute resolution is mediation.  In a nutshell, mediation is about using a disinterested 3rd party to help parties in conflict to work together to create and agree upon an outcome which is acceptable to all parties and which, most importantly, ends the conflict.  While generally associated with divorce, mediation is a broad field that covers resolution of all types of conflict.

This is the fourth in a series of articles that I am writing about considerations while selecting a mediator.  I see too many people neglect this most important part of a mediation and all too often this can hinder outcomes.  Not all mediators are created equal and that is actually a GOOD thing.  Every mediation is different and the parties are different which definitely shapes the best selection.  I recommend deciding what kind of mediation experience that you want and interviewing/selecting a mediator based on their personality as well as a set of skills that match your needs, wants and preferences.  Hopefully my insight on some characteristics and mindsets will help you make the right selection.

Mediation, at its core, is about finding a solution to a problem.  Too often, we look at the conflict as the problem but this is a flawed approach.  In reality, the conflict is a symptom of a disagreement that could not otherwise be solved in a civil and mutually beneficial manner.  The incentive to determine a solution begins to wane and the conflict balloons making the sole achievement of one’s side the only goal.  The disagreement grows and grows becoming the focus and eclipsing the possibility of resolution with further conflict as the parties dig in to their positions and fight for that position instead of developing a solution.  This is why feuding parties end up deadlocked or in court, spending unnecessary time and resources.  Many times, a logical, fact and data driven engineered solution can mean everything in diffusing the animus and finding common ground and compromise.

It may seem odd to think about a mediation as an engineering problem, but when you look at engineering as a problem solving approach, its value to mediation actually becomes quite clear.  So that we are all working from the same playbook, let’s determine a good working definition for engineering which may help make the connection.  Simply defined, engineering is the application of scientific, mathematical or other principles to practical ends to solve a problem.   Engineers are about solutions and they sometimes to operate to the point of seeming obsessive about finding the best answer.  If you have ever seen an engineer load a dishwasher, you know what I mean.  Their craft is about taking facts and data and turning them into something useful.  Most importantly, however, it is an objective process under which efficiency, optimization and best outcomes are the primary objective of the practitioner.  This approach is, in my opinion, not just important to a successful mediation, it is essential.

Full disclosure, I myself have an engineering background, but, for my part, I never planned on having engineering be part of my skills.  My undergraduate alma mater, West Point, however, was founded as an engineering institution and it was still one at its core when I attended school in the 90’s.  I saw how the Army learned a long time ago that the ability of their officers the turn chaos into success is supercharged when they think like engineers.  Because of this, engineering courses, almost the equivalent to a minor, were required to complete the curriculum for non-engineering majors.   Even me, a management major with eyes set on the science of leading people spent a large amount of my classroom time learning and applying engineering.  It was simply how we did things and it just plain worked well.

As my military and civilian careers progressed, I could see clearly how well the engineering framework and mindset applied to everything.  It worked so well, in fact, that it became and still is a key pillar of how I approached every role, job or task especially when it involved direct interaction for solving a problem such as a client issues, employee disagreement and, of course, mediation.  Again and again,  success and the ability to distill a problem down to the cause and synthesize a best solution was a powerful tool.  It even allowed me to better position sometimes unpopular requirements and decisions with my teams in a constructive and positive manner and, in so doing, get their support and buy-in .

So what does this mean for you?  If you are serious about coming to the best possible solution to a conflict which optimizes balance and achieves compromise, having mediator with an engineering background is essential.   Engineering and the accompanying mindset are crucial in the synthesis and determination of a best solution as well as a set of other decent alternatives.  Engineering as a methodology strips away the subjective in favor of the analytical at the very least giving the conflicted parties a good, impartial point of discussion and hopefully resolution.  Working with an engineer best positions you to work through the emotion, the anger and the conflict.