//The Woman in the Middle

The Woman in the Middle

He should know, having reached an agreement with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to initiate a substantial reduction in armament levels worldwide.

Some individuals have a deeper understanding of Reagan’s quote than others. Some understand the former president’s comment with such clarity and depth that they’ve made a career out of it. One such person is Cartel House member Naëtt Atkinson, a distinguished mediator possessing exemplary empathy, keen intellect and a honeypot heart.

We caught up with her and posed a few questions. Here’s how it went.

1. For those that don’t know what mediation is or how it works, briefly explain what you do for a living.

In mediation, two parties come together voluntarily to resolve a dispute. The mediator guides the process, not the content or the outcome. You want a mediator who is astute, but compassionate. I cater for people that don’t want litigation, or for whom litigation is a last resort. I focus on the human aspect of conflict and try to put the power of outcome in your hands.

Criminality is not something I get involved with, so a good mediator does not need a legal background. Sometimes, it’s actually better not to have background in law because you’re not constrained by frame of mind or expected behaviour. One of the most successful mediators of all time, William Ury, is an Anthropologist. Issues are often more complex than a purely legal framework provides for.

If mediation doesn’t work, you can still go ahead with litigation. Many people are intimidated by lawyers and legal processes; the inability to influence the outcome and the exorbitant costs. Mediation makes access to justice more accessible to the majority of people. It will also alleviate a lot of pressure on the courts if used properly and widely.

2. You purport to be a deep listener. Dean Jackson, creator of Live in the Now, said that “Listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego and others over self.” Does that sound about right to you?

Yes. Active listening is important. Too many people listen passively, or not at all. All of us want to be seen, but on all of us want to be looked at. If you listen, you’re fulfilling a basic human need. Mediation allows both parties to be heard.

3. 12 years of teaching experience must help in your line of work. Can you give us an insight as to how?

I taught so long ago! It’s more than 20 years now. I taught second-language English in rural Limpopo from ’90-’94 and nothing recalibrates white middle class quite like it. No electricity and water twice a week if you’re lucky. There were over 100 children in some classes. The average age of my matric class was 24. Some students coming to school were in their 30s. It teaches you patience, adaptation, resilience and conflict management. Culturally, I’m more aware.

It deeply saddens me that very little has changed. All the social evils still exist. Perhaps things have improved in urban areas, but not elsewhere. It’s a real problem for education and for our country as a whole. People should go to these areas for a week and see the things that happen outside the urban bubbles.

4. You emphasise that your clients can approach you without fear of judgement, awkwardness or embarrassment. Why do people fear these things?

I mediate divorce a lot and it often gets volatile. It’s a stressful process. I don’t make a judgement about the reasons for the divorce or the acrimony between parties. I focus on how they can best shape the future so that their interests are taken care of. “Hard on the issues, soft on the people”. If something resolves, both parties can be at peace, which can seem impossible when the process begins.

I also do financial confidence mentoring. We unpack the details of financial documents and budgets, which people struggle with. I give them confidence to know what to look for, think critically about it, understand the story behind the numbers and put their hand up in a board meeting and ask a question without fear of ridicule.

5. How do the challenges differ across workplace, domestic and commercial contexts?

Domestic (or family) mediation mostly involves divorce. Divorces are highly charged and negative behaviour is displayed openly. Containing the conflict is crucial here. Conflict dissipates when the needs of the individuals are met. If the parties are not sincere about an amicable resolution, I can terminate the process at any point. My success rate with divorce mediation sits 90%.

Workplace mediation often involves passive aggression and hierarchy plays a big part. Employees fear that honesty will get them the sack and rather disengage than deal with the issues. We all know the impact of disengaged employees and conflict between teams.

In commercial mediation, parties usually desire to resolve the conflict amicably to keep prospect of conducting further business alive, to resolve issues as speedily as possible and to minimise the impact of the conflict on bottom line but also on reputation and goodwill. That doesn’t mean there is less conflict.

6. Is it unusual for somebody in your profession to operate from a space like Cartel House? How has being in the space affected your work?

Yes it is. I think, just generally, I’m a bit of an outlier.

Most mediators work from home or from legal firms. I didn’t want to work from home. I find it too lonely. It is easier to keep that balance if you have an office space. I need to be in a beautiful, creative place and the Inner City Ideas Cartel provides the perfect combination of visually appealing space and interesting people to interact with.

7. What is the most boring aspect of your job?


To be honest, I tire of convincing people that my services are beneficial. My record speaks for itself, but there is an inherent suspicion of people in my position.

8. Conversely, what is the most exciting?

I love it when conflict is settled. I love the fact that it can be creative and stimulating and that two cases are never the same. It’s a sweet moment when you see conflict transform into a different entity. When people say, “I can live with the outcome. I feel I have been seen and heard. I played a part in this outcome.” That’s huge for me.

With the financial mentoring and training, it’s really rewarding when people learn things that put the power in their hands. The more people know, the less likely they are to be taken advantage of. To see that is a wonderful feeling.

Making the world accessible to people is a big part of what I do.

9. What is your ultimate life goal, and how are you going to achieve it?

Sometimes I think an ‘ultimate life goal’ is a misnomer. We get stuck and forget to be creative or we feel we let ourselves down because we don’t get there or we change track. As long as whatever I do makes me come alive, allows me time to look at flowers and has some kind of positive impact on people I interact with, I’m happy.