This past week I attended a full day event put on by IMAQ, the “Institut de la Médiation et Arbitrage du Québec”, which included four separate presentations by experienced practitioners in the field.

Their goal was to “demystify” mediation and arbitration as they pertain to workplace conflicts, and I attended to get a feel for the local med-arb scene here in Montreal. The quality of the presentations was quite high, and it was nice to learn that the alternative dispute resolution world seems to be healthy and growing.

One of the presentations dealt with how to handle a narcissistic person when conducting a mediation. The two presenters were both experienced mediators, but they came from different professions. The first one to speak was a lawyer, which is not uncommon, but the second was a psychologist.

The psychologist offered lots of do’s and don’t’s for dealing with this type of person, and I was reminded of a recent discussion I had with a colleague who told me that he tried to avoid dealing with business founders because most of them are narcissists.

I am not sure that founders are actually true narcissists, but I can tell you that if there is a continuum of narcisism, most successful business founders would score more towards the higher end of the scale for the most part.

But the main idea for this blog post was hinted at in the title, and it dealt with looking forward versus looking backwards.

During a presentation on the various different types of alternative dispute resolution, there was a slide that mentioned that mediators look forward, while arbitrators look backward. Hmmm. I never thought about it like that.

An arbitrator listens to both sides and passes judgment, and ends up issuing a ruling, much like a judge, but with fewer rules and often less formality.

The arbitrator looks to what happened in the past, hears both parties talk about things that happened in the past, and tries to adjudicate and pronounce some sort of ruling that will be applied today to resolve the issue.

A mediator looks at things from a much different perspective, and in many ways cares more about the future than the past.

When you think about workplace situations, assuming that the people involved in a dispute both want to keep their jobs, it is important to find a durable, sustainable solution, which is why mediation is often preferred over arbitration.

When we look at family businesses, it is even more important to look for ways to work things out in a way that makes sense for the long term for the family and for the business.

Some people might say that once you get to the point of needing to bring in a mediator, things must already be pretty bad, and that could be true, but it is a matter of degree.

Ideally everyone gets along and things are harmonious. But often people don’t get along perfectly and they need help straightening things out, and this can sometimes be done with some simple facilitation.

If things start to get even worse, maybe it is time to try something more like mediation, where the mediator tries to find common ground on which to rebuild the harmony that people are trying to get back.

The sooner you recognize that something is amiss and bring in someone to help sort it out, the more options you will have between facilitation, mediation, or even arbitration.

If you wait too long and the dispute gets uglier, then the choices sadly diminish and it will become time to “lawyer up”, and that’s when you get those stories about family businesses that you read about in the papers.

And they rarely have happy endings.