Dorcas Crawford is founder of The Better Way, a unique service for conflict management. Through this service Dorcas brings her mediation and facilitation skills to senior management teams and board members in public, private and third sector organisations, as well as conducting workplace mediations.
Earlier this year, she sold her award-winning law firm Edwards & Co Solicitors after 34 years in the firm to follow the road less travelled and focus on The Better Way full-time. Embracing new paths and following your passion is a mindset she advocates passionately for and one which she shared on the TEDxStormont stage in 2016. We caught up with Dorcas to find out more about her latest venture, and how making a difference is her driving force…
How was your TEDxStormont experience?
I’d set the bar very high, because I’d been a fan of TED since I was about 19. And so I really wanted it to be polished and professional. I had a tiny piece of card in my hand that had the first line of every paragraph, but honestly, it was so small, I couldn’t have seen it anyway. I just wanted it to be a really high standard. And I was really, really nervous about it, like more nervous than I’ve been in years, probably since I did amateur drama. I was also the last up of about 12 speakers. It honestly was torture. But once I got about three lines in and I was in my flow, and I knew it was working, my brain was working, my memory was working, then I really enjoyed it.
What has happened for you since the TEDxStormont talk?
One of the things that really helped me after speaking at TEDxStormont was receiving invitations to speak about workplace culture and bringing your whole self to work. So I did get quite a few invitations, which was lovely. And I then went down that road less travelled and sold my law practice, Edwards & Co. where I’d been for 34 years. I’d never worked anywhere else. I had set up The Better Way within Edwards & Co. as a mediation service within the firm so I carved that out and took it with me.
What I’ve done with The Better Way is take what was initially a mediation service and tailored it to respond to the demand for conflict management services. It’s more than just mediation, so I deliver quite a lot of training for organisations on how to manage conflict and create a healthy workplace using mediation skills.
The lack of human contact and people’s exhaustion with the pandemic and remote working is causing a lot of conflict. And it’s much harder to resolve at the minute because you’re not seeing each other – it’s very easy to bear a grudge, it’s very easy to overthink something and you’re not bumping into somebody on the stairs and going for a coffee. You might start thinking ‘I haven’t seen her for weeks, she’s probably not speaking to me now’. Or you suddenly read everything into every email that isn’t actually there. And that’s purely from lack of contact and communication. I work a lot with senior management teams in organizations – charities and the public and private sector, and help them to approach conflict as something that is inevitable, but that needs to be tackled, acknowledged and discussed.
How can we resolve complex issues more effectively?
You know, in every single facilitation or conflict management session I do, the main word on the flip chart is communication. Every time that’s what’s broken down, communication is what’s at the heart of it. So that’s why I really love delivering the training, because you’re reaching people before they have problems. And getting them to practice really good ways of having difficult conversations, tackling the thorny issues, facing things head on saying, ‘how can I help you? Are you okay? How can I understand your position better? ’, or just asking the right questions and not letting it escalate into something really, really controversial, damaging and destructive.
Why do you think people are scared to address conflict?
If I had a pound for every person who says they really hate conflict and confrontation… I think we need to learn that conflict can be constructive, that it’s okay to disagree. But what we need to do is disagree respectfully – there is a way of doing this, and I often use the line, and I can’t claim credit for it, ‘conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional’. Why does it have to be confrontation? There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘look, I really don’t see it that way. I’m interested that you do, but I don’t. And can we talk about that?’
I do wonder sometimes whether we have had so much conflict in Northern Ireland that we are terrified of it. Because it’s such an awful thing and we’ve only seen conflict at its absolute worst.
People go to their corners too quickly and it becomes a boxing ring. So one of the things I do in the kind of training that I do is to have open communication, and disagree respectfully, and to say, ‘okay, we’re going to have this kind of conflict. But here’s the rules around it.’ The hardest work for me is when it has turned into an actual dispute. The hardest work is when people are in the trenches and it’s much harder to resolve the conflict then.
What motivated you to sell the law firm and focus on The Better Way full-time?
I had been a litigator for most of my career and I got really disillusioned with the law. Around 2007, a very senior judge from England who had retrained as a mediator came over to manage a two day mediation process for one of my clients. And I was just absolutely fascinated by the process. I talked to him and he kind of took me under his wing, and he recommended training as a mediator. So I went to London in 2008 and took a five day course in mediation, and just found my home. I knew that this is what I should be doing. It was practical, it was sensible and it helped people find solutions. Mediation is all about people solving their own problems. And what you do as the mediator is facilitate a solution, rather than find them. And when people find their own solutions, they tend to stick to them.
Initially I did commercial mediation, cases that were already in the litigation process and were heading to court and then in 2005 I set up and branded the service The Better Way, for obvious reasons. I trained at that stage in workplace mediation and gradually began to specialize in that. I realized that in this type of work I could have more of an influence and help people change things within the workplace, instead of cases going to court. Because with this work you’re getting people right at the start, rather than some years down the line when they’re going to court and things are really aggressive.
I’m the kind of person who needs to believe in what I’m doing. And I just love mediation so I thought now’s the time to do it. And I wanted to slow down a wee bit because I had probably been working six days a week, seven at one stage. for years and years. I was frustrated that I didn’t have time to do other things in life. I’m now trying to only work three days a week and then give time to the charities and other projects that I’m involved in.
In your talk, you talked about measuring time by quality and not quantity. How would you advise people to embed that way of thinking into their everyday lives?
So probably my 10/15 minutes of yoga in the morning were always what kept me sane for the day. I’m very keen on mindfulness, but I’m not great at meditation- I’m not patient enough for that. And I think there are little things you can do that aren’t having to sit and meditate for an hour, you know, like just being present when you’re brushing your teeth, or breathing for five seconds when you’re sitting at the traffic lights. So a lot of it is awareness.
What do you think stops people from traveling down roads less travelled?
There’s no doubt it’s fear. I’m very involved in Lean In, the global Foundation that focuses on empowering women and promoting equality. One of the classic Lean In stickers is ‘what would you do if you weren’t afraid?’ So I have that sticker on the front of my iPad cover to challenge myself constantly. There’s a real ‘better the devil you know’ culture here in NI and I hate that phrase. I absolutely hate that phrase. I think it holds people back so much. There are things I’ve done where I’ve been afraid, but I try and make myself go beyond the fear, I try to think there’s a reason to do it. Not that I would ever jump out of a plane!
I have never, ever regretted taking the road less traveled and I’ve done that several times. I might have been terrified for the first part of the path but when I look back at the decisions I’ve made, I am always so glad I’ve done it.
What’s next for you?
Developing The Better Way and getting that message out to people because when I do that work with teams or with individuals invariably the response is that they wish they’d had the conversation a year ago.
I’m so excited about having time to actually build that and see it make a difference. One of my biggest inspirations in life is my dad who sadly passed away last May. I think a lot about him and the influence he had. My dad was all about making a difference through the things he did for people so I think that’s probably my motto in life. After people have resolved conflict they literally look different – their shoulders drop, they smile, they talk about not dreading going into work. I’m also excited to have time to get more involved with Bowel Cancer UK and Lean In. I’m really passionate about women, feminism and equality. I’ve just been appointed Regional Leader of Lean In Ireland, so I’ll be dedicating more time to that.
What’s your call to action for people?
I would really, really push people to take the road less travelled, to use that phrase. I just think that, ‘what would you do if you weren’t afraid?’ Do it differently, take the chance because what’s the worst that can happen? There are very few people who regret, in my experience, taking that leap towards something that they’re passionate about. If you’re really sure you’re passionate about it, let it bring you down that path, although be prepared that it may be a really difficult one. Sometimes the fact that it’s difficult is the sign that you should do it.