As I continue to process the book The Promise of Mediation and the concept of transformative mediation, I find that I have more questions than answers. Yesterday I conducted a mediation for the first time since reading The Promise of Mediation. It was a good learning experience and it has provided me with even more food for thought.
The questions I find myself asking include:
- What is the goal of mediation?
- What do people need when they are in conflict?
- What helps turn a conflict from destructive to constructive?
- What is the role of the mediator?
- How do my beliefs about human nature and human potential interact with the way in which I do or should conduct mediations?
In The Promise of Mediation, Bush and Folger present two distinct and specific sets of answers to these questions, those of settlement-oriented mediation and those of transformative mediation. Although much of what they say about transformative mediation makes sense to me, I feel the need to work out for myself what I believe.
I have some glimmerings of answers, but I know that I will continue to clarify my understanding of mediation and conflict as I gain experience. For now, let me start by listing out some beliefs I hold which inform my approach to mediation:
- Most people do not know how to communicate effectively. This is not because of an innate inability, but because they never learned – they did not have good role models of effective communication as children (this is, unfortunately, a self-perpetuating cycle).
- Effective communication consists of communicating your needs and feelings in a non-threatening way that says “this is where I am” without making assumptions about where the other party might be.
- In order to have the ability to understand and empathize with another individual’s perspective, people have to have their own perspective acknowledged. They have to feel heard in order to hear.
- All humans have the ability to empathize with others, but there may be things blocking them from being able to do so (such as not feeling heard).
- Being in conflict is distressing to people.
Based on these beliefs, I believe that a major role of the mediator is to help the parties communicate effectively. Specifically, the mediator can help by making each party feel heard, and by reframing or restating their words in ways that the other party can hear without feeling threatened. I feel that by far the most important aspects of any mediation (and ones that will necessarily exist in every effective mediation) are the active listening and reframing of issues. Settlement-oriented mediation becomes problematic to me when it skips too quickly over this aspect, moving straight to option-generating. Transformative mediation is appealing because it is based almost entirely on these two roles of the mediator.
My main difficulty with accepting the transformative approach, as far as I understand it, is the non-directiveness of the mediator in terms of process. The parties are supposed to be in charge of the process, so the mediator is not directive with regards to who speaks when, setting ground rules, or managing emotions and interruptions. So far in my (admittedly limited) experience, it seems to me that there is some value in the mediator managing the process. In particular, I have found that starting the mediation by allowing each party to speak in turn without interruption (and reflecting back to them what they say), is effective and important. It does, however, require the mediator to actively intervene in the process and prevent the other party from interrupting. To me, this can be necessary because, as I said above, most people lack the skills to communicate effectively, and setting out a framework helps them do so. Starting with this uninterrupted time for both parties also helps level the playing field if there is a power imbalance. If one party is more dominating, I feel it is important for the other party to have time to speak during which they can be guaranteed no interruptions.
This short exploration of my beliefs provides answers, in part, to the questions of what the mediator’s role is and what people need from mediation. I do not feel that I have fully answered all the questions I have, however. Settlement-oriented mediation and transformative mediation provide a good reference point for me as I explore these topics, but I am not sure that I wholly embrace either. Of course, my understandings of both approaches may be incomplete. I do know two things:
- I am uncomfortable with some of the things I have observed my co-mediators do (or not do) in the settlement-oriented mediations I have participated in.
- The underlying values of transformative mediation as presented in The Promise of Mediation resonate with me.
As I have the opportunity to do more mediations, I am looking forward to continue to learn and deepen my understanding of the questions I listed earlier.