A mediator’s backpack

I stumbled upon this great thread on lifehacker: What’s in your awesome backpacks? Working as a mediator/researcher I basically live in my backpack and use it to carry around everything I need to do this work. As a mediator I do mostly public policy mediations, which means that I deal with (local) governments, special interest groups and civil society. The content of my backpack reflects this – most items are used in mediation-projects aimed at public issues and decision-making.

The contents of this backpack allows me to organize and facilitate workshops, mediation-interventions and group decision-making in the context of complex social issues and policy fields. Since I combine this practical work with (academic) research, my backpack holds some extra stuff (like books and recording equipment) that you usually don’t find in a mediators toolbox.

Before I expose the contents of my (mediator’s) backpack, it is important to mention that this backpack represents my personal style of (professional) mediation which I have developed and expanded over years of practice. The most important tools of mediator are, of course, his/her professional skills – the ability to mediate between different participants, interests and institutions.

As a (public policy) mediator I work ‘in the field’ most of the time, organizing meetings with multitudes of stakeholders and individuals, troubleshooting and designing structures for (group) decision-making.

a mediator's backpack

  • Backpack: The North Face – Borealis SE (Men) 27 liters
  • Macbook (2.16 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4 GB) + power cable + remote control
  • Agenda (suitable for business and short & long term planning)
  • Ringbinder with A4 paper, articles and transparent sheets
  • Whiteboard markers, regular markers, pens (blue & red), highlighters
  • Cellphone (which fits into pocket on right shoulder belt of backpack) + charger
  • Headset with mic for cellphone
  • Mouse (Sweex, with retractable cord)
  • VGA-cable + Mac display adapter
  • USB-memory sticks (1 GB & 2 GB)
  • Flip Mino HD (or Mp3-voicerecorder)
  • Nikon Coolpix L10 + USB-cable (only protective bag visible in picture)
  • Charger + AA rechargeable batteries
  • Mp3-player + duo-plug
  • Identification
  • Public transportation card
  • Emergency phone card
  • Business cards
  • Book (non-fiction): ‘Group Dynamics’ (international student edition) by Donelson R. Forsyth
  • Book (non-fiction): ‘Process-management in public participation projects’ by Aik Kramer
  • Book (fiction): ‘Zero Cool’ by John Lange (Michael Crichton)
  • Envelopes + stamps
  • (Duct)tape
  • Paperclips
  • Raincoat
  • Toothbrush + toothpaste + dental floss
  • Nail clipper
  • Bandaids
  • Tissues
  • Swiss army knife
  • Spork
  • Vitamines + Lysine
  • Fruit
  • Sugar
  • Juice and/or water
  • Food (beans or noodles or sandwiches)
  • Office keys
  • Playing cards
  • Money

Depending on the type of case and duration of the activities I may also pack a clean shirt, some socks and maybe a small towel. Doing mediations is an intense activity that requires a lot of energy and focus. Especially with public policy mediations, there is a lot of case-management and planning involved. This enables me to create a safe and secure environment for participants and at the same time manage my own time and energy.

What do I use these items for? The backpack itself is awesome; it has a lot of room and special compartments. Also, it has a padded, winged, stowable hip belt which is essential for me. When the backpack is fully loaded, it can weigh up to 15 kilo’s! Travelling with this much weight can become bothersome at some point, but why not see it as exercise?!

My Macbook is essential for this work. I use it for email (a lot!), creating presentations, writing papers and case-management. When in the field I use local Wifi-networks or just plug in a internet-cable. Also, the internet is an incredibly powerful research-tool, especially if you have access to relevant databases.

My agenda is the core of my day-to-day activities. I write down everything I plan to do and cross it out when it is done. This allows me to be efficient and effective and also allows me to create ‘down-time’ – time to relax, do sports and hang out with friends. The only negative effect of using an agenda is that if I don’t write down an appointment or activity, I will probably forget about it. People who say that you shouldn’t plan too much and leave room for spontaneity are idiots. The first thing a good planner does, is reserve time for fun and play! If you don’t plan fun, you probably won’t have any!

Very important: Use an agenda that has a week-planning – a week spread across one or two pages in stead of a day on a single page. This allows you to visualize days, weeks and months more realistically. Also, don’t be afraid to set long-term goals for yourself. You can never know exactly what will happen in your future, but precise and well formulated goals bring inspiration, motivation and discipline.

The ring binder holds all the important papers and notes for my work. I create categories for different cases and topics and always aim at creating formats that will save me time in the future. I am constantly looking for articles about (public policy) mediation and draw flowcharts to visualize possible process-designs.

Mediation-processes are about communication. Even though there is a lot of theory behind this work, the actual interventions are mostly done verbally, through interactions with participants, either in meetings or telephone conversations or through the use of interactive media. My backpack holds numerous communication-devices, such as a cellphone (including a headset!), a voice- or video recorder, a photo camera. Perhaps the best communication-tool is still the laptop, since email is an important medium (especially in the preparation-phase) and because I prefer to use Skype for digital conferencing.

The VGA-cable is important in case you want to use a beamer for your presentations. As in most professional services, presentation is an important element of success. Participants have to be able to identify with the process and trust the mediator(s) involved. In my opinion this all starts with good personal care and ‘dressing the part’: suitable clothes, good personal hygiene and a professional attitude. This is why I always carry a toothbrush and some toiletries.

The rest of my stuff consists of typical business items, such as envelopes, stamps, business cards, pens, markers, etc. Also, I carry around a lot of food. Keeping your energy up is an important condition for doing mediations. Professional mediation is all about being alert and solution-focused. When you’re hungry, tired and/or moody, it is difficult to stay focused, patient and neutral.

A mediator has to be patient; participants and organizations have their own learning-curve and sometimes a mediator has to wait ( a long time) for the right moment to be able to really make an impact on the process (which can last up to three months in the case of public policy mediation). This is why a mediator’s backpack should always contain some books. In my case these books are usually non-fiction theory relevant to my work, such as a book about group dynamics. But I can also recommend bringing some fiction or a magazine to ‘get your mind of work’ when you want to.

When I am packing my bag, I plan for the worst (that’s why I always carry a raincoat). Still, my attitude as a professional mediator can best be described as realistic/optimistic. The difference between me and the participants is that I do not hold an interest in the case at hand and that I focus on the decision-making process and all the steps that lead up this: communication, exploration, negotiation and implementing new strategies on an institutional level.

My backpack is essential to my work. I almost never leave home without it and when I do (like when I don’t have to work and I’m going out having fun), I usually feel like I have forgotten something important. It then feels like I’m wearing a ghost-backpack. That’s why I prefer to bring my backpack everywhere I go!