Ask An Expert: John Sturrock QC

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John Sturrock QC discusses life as a mediator, the importance of an effective cross-cultural dialogue and key challenges facing mediation today.

Tell us a bit about yourself

I am a Scot, happily married to Fiona with three outstanding children, all making their way in the world at the ages of 27, 25 and 22. Each has undertaken a bit of mediation training with me and seem to have more skills in problem-solving than I ever had! I have had a varied and exciting career.

I studied law in Edinburgh and Philadelphia and then went to the Scottish Bar in 1986, where I was fortunate to develop a really interesting practice in civil work. I even made it to the House of Lords! In the mid-90s, I had my first career change, taking on the role as inaugural Director of Training and Education at the Scottish Bar where we created a world-leading advocacy skills programme. During that time, I also studied negotiation at Harvard and trained as a mediator. These really opened my eyes to a different way of doing things.

By the end of the 90’s I had taken silk (become a QC) but I decided that I wanted to do something different. I could see that high quality training and mediation in commercial disputes both had great potential. I also wanted to work in a more cooperative setting. The rest, as they say, is history.

On a completely different tack, I am also an enthusiastic progressive rock music afficianado!

How and when did you decide to work in mediation?

As a result of the experiences mentioned above, I decided I wanted to pursue mediation seriously as a career and that I could only do so by devoting myself to it on a full-time basis. In 2002, I finally left the Bar and established the business that became Core Solutions. Some say that this was a risky thing to do and, in retrospect, it may seem that way.

However, we only have one life and I wanted to make a difference and to explore the full potential of mediation. I am also a bit of an entrepreneur, an innovator, and a provoker of change, so this suited me well. And I was supported by my wife throughout it all. The past 14 years have been a marvellous journey for which I am really grateful.

What has been the most momentous or satisfying mediation you’ve been involved with and why?

There are so many. My work with governments has been fascinating in many ways as we explore different ways of undertaking political and policy discourse. But I can’t say more about that! I mediated in Qatar a couple of years ago in what was one of the biggest contractual disputes of my career. Learning to understand multiple cultures (there were many continents and countries represented in the negotiating teams) and working really hard on my own skills to handle such a situation was very satisfying.

Once or twice (or more often than that!), mediations have seemed completely unresolvable and yet somehow, with perseverance and discipline, the parties have got to an outcome.That always feels good. But, just as satisfying – and just as important to those involved – are those occasions when the parties look at each other and say :‘Now I understand where you are coming from. I’m so pleased we had this conversation. If only we had done so a year ago…’.

Has mediation ever exposed you to cultures with which you were not comfortable or familiar ?

I mentioned the Middle East earlier. I have worked with people from Russia, Africa and many other cultures. However, I feel that culture is often just as challenging or apparently strange closer to home. I have undertaken a lot of mediation work with sport in recent years and some sports have their own very distinct way of doing things.

Similarly, as an Edinburgh-based Scot, I can go to Glasgow and feel that I am in a different setting altogether! Familiarity and comfort are two different ideas. I think that one can never assume familiarity with any situation as it will always have its unique imprint, whether because of the people, the place, the problem or the‘politics’.

Being open and humble about how little we know is essential. But comfort is another matter. I think, paradoxically, we can always have a sense of comfort in what we do if we approach our mediation work with humility and openness, and with authenticity and lack of pretension about who we are, what we do and what we offer.

Can personal bias affect cross-cultural mediation, have you had any experience of this whether positive or negative?

Personal bias affects everything we do and are. Recently, I had the privilege of working with Dr Paul Gibson from Australia. He has undertaken a significant amount of study into bias. We all carry bias. It is the way we are wired, dating back to prehistoric fight or flight responses. We have our baggage, our preconceptions, our miscommunications, our jealousies, our fears, our unspoken hopes, blind spots and so on. They affect and influence us at a sub-conscious level all the time. Awareness of this is key to effectiveness as a mediator and working to manage it in ourselves and others is critical.

What do you think are the biggest challenges and opportunities currently facing mediation?

In my view, mediation runs a risk, however small, of being a one-generation wonder. That risk is magnified by the over-legalisation of mediation and by mediators’ willingness to be influenced unduly by the conventional approach of lawyers and others within the system of litigation. Mediation is not just an adjunct of the litigation system, far from it, and we must protect it from those who would, mostly inadvertently, like to control it and shape it in their own more contentious image.

Opportunities are huge. Seeing mediation as an expansive set of ideas and skills, suited to non-contentious work, deal-making, prevention, better economic performance, political decisions and policy making, just as much as it is to disputes and conflict of the classic sort, is where our future lies. We need to open our minds to this and have the courage to continue to break the mould, to look at things quite differently.  After all, that is what we expect and encourage others to do when we work with them as mediators.

This is an adapted version of the interview, the original was published on the Young Mediators blog and can be found here.

John Sturrock is based in Scotland, where he founded his dispute resolution company, Core Solutions. He also works out of London through Brick Court Chambers . He is one of the UK’s most experienced mediators, an inspirational leader and a mentor for many lawyers, students and young mediators.

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