Response to the Question of Mediator Burn Out

Geoff Sharp asked an important question in his blog mediator blah ... blah ... "How do you know when you're conflict weary?" I posted a comment on his site but given my tendency to over-write I abbreviated it there while promising to post it in its entirety here. This is my response to his post:

I’m glad you raised this issue, risky or not. Mediator burn out is something we just don’t seem to discuss as a field. Yet it’s a very real, very important one for all professionals working in conflict resolution. Mediators may benefit from resources other professionals have provided around “compassion fatigue” and “secondary trauma.” These are terms most often associated with the care-taking professions such as the medical field or social work but the concepts are not lost on dispute resolution professionals. Most importantly, however, we as mediators need to be honest about the impact that the work we do has on us both physically and emotionally. Perhaps it is because of the pressure to maintain neutrality that keeps us from admitting and expressing some of the negative consequences of our work. Or perhaps it’s because we’re all martyrs in some way or another that makes admitting our own weaknesses difficult. What mediator hasn’t heard a stranger, upon learning of our chosen profession, exclaim over how brave and patient and strong we must be to do the work that we do? It takes all of those things, including an ability to absorb people’s most negative emotions and release them back into the universe in a non-destructive way, to be a successful mediator. Yet some of that negativity will inevitably stay with us no matter how good or strong or understanding or patient or experienced we are. Even the best mediators in the world need help and support. As a profession, we need to have more honest conversations about the impact that our work has on us, and develop resources, tools, and coping mechanisms to better address the accumulation of emotional baggage unique to our field before we lose too many more good people to burn out.

Geoff asked: “How do you know when you’re conflict weary?” I think if a mediator is asking him or herself that question, then he or she already knows the answer. Perhaps the next question is: what do I need to take care of myself? Are there people both within and outside of my profession whom I trust will help me through this? Can I take care of myself while I’m continuing to do the work, do I need to take a short break from the work to take care of myself, or should I consider a long, perhaps permanent break?

I think, regardless of how much any of us love what we do, it’s okay – and essential – that as mediators we recognize when we’re tired and burnt out, that we create the space to support one another around it, and that we stop pretending we’re impervious to pain.

Compassion Fatigue Self-Test from Ace

By Laura L. Noah
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