The Future of Community Mediation – an interview with Stephen Ruttle

Stephen Ruttle KC is best known as a commercial mediator but is passionate about community mediation and has founded an innovative community mediation centre in Wandsworth where commercial mediator volunteer their time in lower value commercial mediations which fund community mediation.

Stephen was sadly unable to make the timing of one of the community mediation sessions at the Civil Mediation Council Conference in 2022. Mia and he, therefore recorded this video to talk about the importance of the community mediation sector working together in these challenging times to respond to the crisis of polarisation in the world and help support each other and local communities. In this video, Stephen counsels the mediation community to 1) Think big, 2) Work together, 3) Find balance between local and national.

You can listen to the podcast here or watch the video below

In case you prefer to read instead of watching, the transcript of the interview is set out here:

  • Mia Forbes Pirie: Good morning, Stephen. Thank you very much for joining us here on video. We’re sorry you can’t be here on, in person, but very pleased to have you this way.
  • Stephen Ruttle: And I’m sorry as well. I’d love to be with you. Really would. And thank you so much for, for this opportunity to say a few words.

“the world needs peacemakers as never before.”

  • Mia Forbes Pirie: Thank you, Stephen. We really wanted to capture a little bit of your thoughts on making the case for government, making the case for community mediation. And I thought it would be a good idea to start with why is it important that governments support community mediation?
  • Stephen Ruttle: Thanks, Mia. Um, there is, I think, one, um, short, big, vital answer. Um, and that is I think the world needs peacemakers as never before. Uh, both in this country and across the world. Government’s job is to recognize profound, uh, need in the country that it governs and to find and to endorse possible solutions. And one such solution to what I think is this critical need for peacemakers is the emergence of the mediation movement. Uh, uh, an emergence that I’ve described before as a social antibody of our time when societies that are sick, throw up groups of people whose job is to deal with profound social mals.
  • Mia Forbes Pirie: So peacemakers are, or mediators are, peacemakers. Is that why peacemakers are the answer to the problem?
  • Stephen Ruttle: Precisely, precisely, precisely. At essence, mediators are peacemakers facilitators, mediators are peacemakers. Uh, our job is to help people have difficult conversations, uh, and thereby to restore relationships. And I think, um, a as I look at it and having done it for, for 20, 25 years, increasingly, I think that the job is not primarily about helping these people agree better about the past, uh, but about helping them to disagree. Well, in the future, let me just say a word on that. Mm-hmm. , uh, I think that getting agreements about what has happened is getting harder and harder and harder, both local and at national and at international level. There’s too much knowledge out there. There’s too much access to knowledge. There are too many people and there are too many inconsistent human rights now being thrown up. So reaching agreement, which is how for probably for much of human history, civilized history has worked, uh, and how we’ve looked for it. There’s a change in thinking required because we’re not gonna get those agreements. We have to learn how to disagree well in the future. And that’s really hard. It’s really, really, really tough. And for that, so often we need help people who can help us look in a different way at the disagreement and how we work through it.
  • Mia Forbes Pirie: So we need to look more to the future, not ignoring the past, but not focusing on getting the past right and agreeing perfectly on it.
  • Stephen Ruttle: Precisely. Because when one helps human beings work together and engage with each other, a relational rapport is built and the relationship becomes, uh, uh, uh, maybe not who healed, but the relationship becomes significant. And people then, because of the relationship say, well, actually, we don’t need to work out whether you were to blame or whether I was to blame whether this happened or that happened. We can she that because something has come into being, which enables us to say, well, moving forward, let’s try it this way. And do you know what? We can live better together. We can engage better together. It, it, it, it would be, yeah, it will just be better. But that’s, that is tricky. It’s difficult.

we may have to disagree about the past, so now can be better.

  • Mia Forbes Pirie: I’ve been watching the all or nothing football series on Netflix or No on Prime recently. And you remind me of something that actually touched me quite deeply, cuz it came from José Mourinho who has the most amazing
  • Stephen Ruttle: No one, no one has ever said that before. Not sure if that’s a compliment. I’m sure it’s, but anyway, thank you
  • Mia Forbes Pirie: It really is and I’ve never you and Mourinho in the same way. But what he said was, the future is more important than the past. And I think that’s just such an important perspective.
  • Stephen Ruttle: Let just gloss. Yeah, I agree. Let me just gloss that a second. We don’t spend our life sort of, uh, uh, trying to work out all that’s gonna happen in the future. We only live now. You can only love anybody now. You can only relate to someone now, uh, if you get stuck on the past or stuck as to what will happen in 1, 2, 3, 4 days time, uh, th then you’re gonna move, move it wrong. What I’m saying about what mediators, what community mediators do, is to help people move away from trying to, usually it’s judgment and blame about the past. But to say, we need to live together. So we’ve got a now to work and we may have to disagree about the past, so now can be better. And the now means that we’re gonna do it this way and we’re going to listen to each other. We’ll respect each other. We’ll just try and work better together in the now. And the now in a community context is when I bump into you on the lift going down from the 12th floor or whatever.
  • Mia Forbes Pirie: So why is this urgent now? And why, why is now the right time?
  • Stephen Ruttle: Okay. Um, golly, how long do I have? But very, very briefly. Uh, two points. First, um, what I see, and I think probably when we look not just at our own nation, but across the world, we see polarization at all levels more and more and more. And that is an increasing phenomenon and it’s an increasing disaster actually, because polarization leads to isolation and loneliness. Mm-hmm. people get isolated and separated. People tend to talk to only those who agree with them. So we have phenomenon of the likes, the ticks. So we withdraw into echo chambers. And that movement away from the center towards polarized extremes leads to implosion, a collapse of the middle ground, uh, and a collapse of relationships in society. And that is what is happening. What facilitator mediators do is to go and stand in the middle. And as you use this as a metaphor, the mediator is in the middle and exercises a sort of gravitational, sort of an emotional gravity, psychological gravity that draws back to the mediator in the middle, those polarized people.

So if the, the facilitator mediator is, as it were standing there, these people, if they want to talk to the mediator, have to move from very polarized positions towards each other because the mediator standing in the middle. So the phenomenon really is that this is what the mediator does, but it is urgent because of polarization. So that’s the first of the two answers. The second is this, and I think there’s really a lack of good alternatives. Um, there are traditional default options when we hit conflict. And you look back over human history, um, basically a twofold. You either fight or you run away, fight or flight. That is the traditional, they never worked, but they were sort of vaguely doable. Now I think neither of them, uh, are, are even doable. Fighting is too dangerous. Just look at the headlines. Is there gonna be a bomb?

we need to see ourselves as part of a much bigger happening event function


Won’t there be a bomb? What will happen? Uh, and secondly, uh, the running away bit. Well, we can always run away. We can always go somewhere else. We can escape from the problem. There are too many human beings on the planet. They’re not really places now to go to. Um, with the whole climate change disaster where the space on the planet is reducing, we can’t run away. So we have perhaps in an age now, which is unique, we have to grapple with these problems. We actually had to do something about it. That’s why it’s urgent.

  • Mia Forbes Pirie: So with how do we stay and how do we stay in the middle? And you know, that I feel passionately about polarization and I’m writing my book about it. And I loved what you said about loneliness. Mm. Um, and I think that loneliness and that isolation leads to so many problems in the community and in, in the world, including planting bombs. Absolutely. So, so how do we, or what do community mediators need to do to persuade government to provide support right. The problem, but how do we persuade others that there is and that we can help?
  • Stephen Ruttle: I mean, I’ve been talking very generally, very broadly and sort of in what may be regarded as messianic terms. Let just try and earth it. Because we’re looking at community mediation here and getting government support for community mediation. Community community mediators are peacemakers at community level. That’s really what we do. We’re not the only ones, uh, all of us, actually all human beings are, or should be peacemakers in the way in which we engage with ourselves, with each other, with our, uh, at the world around us, the, the, the natural world as well. Um, but where that’s not happening, and it’s often very difficult for us to have our own difficult conversations or whatever form then local people, community mediators are there to help local people have these conversations. So, uh, we, community mediators are, are really peacemakers at local level. Uh, I think how do we, uh, how do we engage more effectively with government?

I’ve jotted down three points. First, I think we need to think differently and more ambitiously about who we are. It really follows from what we’ve been discussing that, um, if there’s any weight in these sort of ideas, we need to see ourselves as part of a much bigger happening event function. Uh, we are, I think, stewards of a really, really important process. And again, if what we’re saying has any weight at all, and, and, and it may not, but if it does, then this is, th this is really, really important. Uh, and that we need therefore to, to think more big, to think differently about who we are and what we do, how important it’s, so that’s the first thing we’ve got to work together. And that is, I’ve been in the community mediation movement for over 25 years, um, have set up and, and, and still helped run a, a community mediation charity in Wandsworth and Battersea.

Uh, and over that time there’s been a lot of territorial squabbling. Um, I can understand it because people are passionate about what they do. They want to do their thing, and then they tend to get insular and they tend to to to divide and not really work together. And we also need to find a workable structure. This is difficult. I don’t know the answer, but we need to seek to do what we can, uh, to get a difficult balance between the local and the regional or national. Um, localness is vital. Uh, localness is where individual people are. And what I’m talking about is helping individual people find better solutions to problems, disagree well and move forwards. So localness where the people live is where most mediators operate and where most communi mediation organizations are focused, but simply to be local probably doesn’t work efficiently in today’s world. And we need a regional or national structure, uh, for funding administration and matters like that. So getting the balance between that is, I think critical.

  • Mia Forbes Pirie: So think big, work together and find this balance between the local and the, the national in essence. Yes. Yes. And when you say work together, I have a couple of questions coming out of that. One thing that that comes to me is yesterday we had some focus on peer mediation, and so we had the peer mediation network talk to us. And then we also had Dave Walker talk about how some of the community mediators that he sort of recruits come from peer mediation. And, and you, you spoke earlier about everyone should be a mediated really and then we should have specific mediators. So how

think big, work together and find this balance between the local and, the national

  • Stephen Ruttle: We’re all peacemakers, we’re all peacemakers
  • Mia Forbes Pirie: Peacemakers, yeah.
  • Stephen Ruttle: In our individual lives. And many of us will end up mediating in different fields depending on where we’re based and live and what we do.
  • Mia Forbes Pirie: So how does peer mediation interact with us working together? This is a, a new question. I know that I’m springing on you. And I think the other thing is, it’s just more generally how important is it? You, you’ve talked about people sort of having their, their sort of fiefdoms and, and that being understandable, but how important is it that, that we collaborate?
  • Stephen Ruttle: Well, if, uh, uh, I mean I think it’s, I think it’s vital because if we separate into little individual processes and practices, if the peer media, peer mediators say, this is us, we’re separate. We’re not part of anything more community mediators, family mediators, restorative justice, victim offender mediators, workplace mediators com, commercial mediators, we can all see ourselves as small, separate discreet, uh, standalone groups of people. And if we do that, I think we will, you know, we’ll model along probably, okay, many will go to the wall because we don’t have the funding, but we are losing the bigness of what we’ve got. If we are part of this mediation phenomenon. Uh, we’re all, as were aspects of, you know, tips of the iceberg or aspects of some sort of jewel that we’re different facets of something bigger. And to persuade our 21st century world, this is important.

I think we have to see ourselves more joined up. So therefore what you’ve said happened yesterday sounds brilliant. Of course, we need to see overlaps and links between these different mediating processes. And while the processes may be very, very separate, so a commercial mediation, which is what I do, will look different from a community mediation. We don’t do home visits. It will look very different from a restorative justice. We don’t spend weeks or months working with both victim and offender in order to prepare for the meeting that they have. So there are lots of different practices, but I suspect in any training for each of those practices, there’s probably a 60% overlap, I would guess because it’s about respect, it’s about listening, it’s about helping people disagree. Well go back to that theme and that pulls in all the emotional, relational energy focus and power that underpins what we do.

  • Mia Forbes Pirie: Think you’re absolutely right. There’s probably 60% of the training that’s the same. And I would go further in terms of counselors, psychotherapists and hostage negotiators. 60% of the training. Yeah, the same. Uh, great. Yeah. Why isn’t government currently more supportive?
  • Stephen Ruttle: Well, uh, I think, I’m not sure we’ve made our argument. I mean, a lot of what we’ve said, what we’ve been saying suggests that we need to think bigger and therefore we have an argument to make and I’m not sure we’ve made it. Uh, so I think that’s something we need to improve on. Um, it, it’s not always an easy sell because mediators are in 1 cent trying to prove the negative. By that I mean our job is to help horrible things happening. not to stop them happening, but to help people help not do horrible things to each other. And if horrible things haven’t happened, you don’t know what they would have caused or what would’ve happened. So you’re proving the negative. And so I think some form, I know you are very keen on trying to develop some form of research as to what the saving is. Not just in, in in costs, but in emotional capital. Uh, in sort of personal engagement in communities, how, what it is we save. And I think proving that would be helpful.
  • Mia Forbes Pirie: Um, I think we all care deeply about the emotional side and how much that helps people, but I’m, I’m wondering, I think government probably cares more about the cost savings and maybe that’s where that focus Yeah. And that doesn’t come naturally. Yeah.

we all know of murders that took place because of festering, local resentment

  • Stephen Ruttle: Yeah. I think you mentioned, you mentioned earlier when we were chatting, uh, that there was some mention of some research some years ago, I think, I don’t know the details, but roughly I think the figures were the mediation maybe cost a couple of thousand and asbo that were, they’ve now sort of been kicked into the long grass, if not completely binned. I think they’ve been binned, but antisocial behavioris orders, they at that stage cost between 20 and 30,000 and a murder cost 2 million. Now there’s a hugely generalized, but it just gives some sort of scale of cost for consequences. And, and we all know in the community mediation world, we all know of murders that took place because of festering, local resentment, be it over a car parking space front of a house, be it over something on a sort of a, a communal area, how dogs were exercised or not exercised, uh, all the rest of it.
  • Mia Forbes Pirie: And of course noise,
  • Stephen Ruttle: Oh, noise. Absolutely. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
  • Mia Forbes Pirie: Yeah. That’s wonderful. Stephen, any final words you want? Yes,
  • Stephen Ruttle: Just one, one other, just one other thing on the, the, the sort of the, the, the why isn’t government more supportive and we need to think about this. Governments tend to look in very, very short sound bites. They look for a maximum five years because that’s the political structure. We work in democracies. And so a government will naturally be looking at a five year plan. And much of what we’re talking about here is not a five year plan. Uh, most big mediation initiatives, peace initiatives take much, much, much longer to plan, to develop, to put into process and to continue to work about. So we need to think not just bigger in terms of who we are and what we do, but longer term in terms of a 10, 15 year project, whatever it is. And that’s going to require buy and, and will require a degree of change of thinking, probably of the political parties that we’ll need to talk to.
  • Mia Forbes Pirie: Thank you very much, Stephen. This has been pleasure. Very, very helpful. Thank you. Pleasure.