Book review: This Side of Peace

April 6, 2011

Note: I cross-posted this at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

I was excited to read This Side of Peace, by Hanan Ashrawi, because I have not read (or even come across) many books by either women or non-Westerners about peace. Ashrawi is a high-ranking woman in the Palestinian movement and served as a spokesperson for the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories in the 1980s and early 1990s. In this book she discusses her involvement in the events leading up to the famous handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993.

I found This Side of Peace at times quite interesting and at other times quite boring. I was most interested in the parts where Ashrawi discussed her background and personal experiences, thought, and feelings. However, there was not as much of this as I expected in the book – a great part of the book was a fairly detailed account of all the negotiations Ashrawi participated in. I was not particularly interested in all the back and forth details of these negotiations and found myself even skimming a little bit at certain points.

There is no question that this book casts Israel in a negative light, but this was not unexpected since it is written by a Palestinian. I have read some critiques of the book that criticize how one-sided her perspective is – how she mentions the harmful things Israel has done to Palestinians but not vice versa. However, I don’t think Ashrawi would deny that the book is one-sided – she wrote it to give us her and the Palestinian’s perspective on the issues, not to present an unbiased look at all perspectives in the Middle East. I believe it is important to hear the Palestinian perspective from a Palestinian, not filtered through what the American media would like us to hear.

This Side of Peace also casts the United States in a negative light – from Ashrawi’s perspective, the United States negotiators who were involved in the peace process were clearly biased towards Israel rather than truely uninvolved third parties. I found this aspect and Ashrawi’s description of the negotiation process quite troubling. Of course Ashrawi’s perspective is filtered through her own desires and beliefs, but I have no doubt that negotiations do in fact follow a process similar to what she described: each side has its position, and does its best to hold firm to that position, demanding that the other side do X, Y, or Z before they will sign any agreement. Reading descriptions of these processes strengthened my belief that true peace cannot be reached through such negotiations. We need to at a minimum move away from position-based negotiation and towards interest-based mediation. As long as the parties stick firmly to their positions the best that can happen is a compromise that neither side is happy with. The “peace” that results is unlikely to be long-lasting, as we have in fact seen in the years since the famous 1993 handshake. The parties involved deserve a truly unbiased third-party intermediary guiding them through the process, rather than people working for a government that has a clear interest in one side.

I felt that the personal aspects of This Side of Peace were most effective in evoking compassion from the reader and allowing the reader to view the Palestinian people as human beings rather than simply the “other.” Ashrawi describes air raids and the complexities they had to go through simply to have adequate schooling for the children in their community. This sort of story needs to be told and heard by people on both sides if we truly want to achieve peace. Ashrawi is clearly a compassionate human being who cares deeply about her family and her people. Scattered through-out the more tedious negotiation descriptions, she had insightful comments into human rights and personal motivations. I was most touched by this passage from the first chapter:

My life has been taking shape as a Palestinian, as a woman – as mother, daughter, wife – as a Christian and a humanist, as a radical and a peace activist, as an academic and a political being. And as a composite of all these constituents, I am hopeful that one day I shall attain the only identity and name worth seeking – that of human being.

Although I was not as captivated by This Side of Peace as I hoped to be, I am glad that I read it and have therefore broadened my perspective a bit more.

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Continued reflections on mediation

March 13, 2010

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.


Organization of the week: Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation

March 10, 2010

Continuing with my mediation theme, the organization for this week is the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation. This non-profit organization is based specifically on the transformative framework of conflict as discussed in the book The Promise of Mediation, which I reviewed last week. It was founded “to study and promote the understanding of conflict processes and intervention from the transformative framework.” They conduct a variety of activities to further this mission:

  • Conducting research;
  • Developing publications;
  • Developing and disseminating educational and training materials, resources and programs;
  • Presenting education and training programs for educational institutions, agencies, corporations and other public or private organizations;
  • Organizing conferences, workshops, and seminars; and
  • Developing a network of researchers, mediators, trainers, and teachers who understand and promote the transformative framework for conflict intervention.

Unfortunately, they do not currently have any upcoming events; everything on their events page is in the past. In general, the website does not seem to be kept up-to-date very well, which is too bad, since it serves an important purpose. This organization is the only one I have found so far that is officially and explicitly about mediation as envisioned in The Promise of Mediation.


Quote of the week

March 6, 2010

Administrative note: I’ve updated the organization directory with lists organized alphabetically and regionally, as well as the existing category-based list. Check it out! I continue to add organizations to these lists each time I review one.

The Promise of Mediation, by Robert A. Baruch Bush and Joseph P. Folger, which I reviewed yesterday, offers the most positive outlook on human interaction that I  have encountered in awhile. Here is a quote that captures this optimistic perspective:

[S]ocial interaction itself is not a process to be tolerated and feared, but a process to be welcomed and fostered as a profoundly positive force in human life, because it is the core process for constituting human identity and shared meaning… [H]uman beings themselves have the inherent desire and capacity to engage in social interaction – and conflict interaction – constructively, not only without destroying each other but with the ability to turn conflict itself into an opportunity to deepen and enhance interaction, personal strength, and interpersonal understanding.


Book review: The Promise of Mediation

March 5, 2010

The Promise of Mediation book coverNote: I also posted this at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

I read The Promise of Mediation: The Transformative Approach to Conflict, by Robert A. Baruch Bush and Joseph P. Folger, because I am trying to understand why I believe in mediation. When I first became interested in it, completed my training, and started doing mediations, I did not think much about the values and world view underlying mediation. I just felt that it was a positive thing that I could be good at. I discussed my thoughts on why I became a mediator in more detail in my post last week on “Why Mediation?” (written before I finished The Promise of Mediation).

The Promise of Mediation sounded particularly interesting to me because it discusses “the potential that mediation offered to foster and support positive human interaction within conflict.” This book surpassed my expectations, providing me with significant food for thought on what mediation is, what it should be, and what the role of the mediator is. Bush and Folger do not just present a framework for the mediation process itself. They go far beyond that, discussing the values and worldviews that underpin both the transformative framework and the more common settlement-oriented framework. They delve deep into what mediation should be and what its promise is.

In the rest of this post, I will first present a summary of transformative mediation, contrasting it with settlement-oriented mediation, then discuss the presentation in the book, and lastly give some final thoughts. I will likely be posting more of my personal thoughts on the subject in a subsequent post.

Overview of transformative mediation

The transformative framework of mediation is based on a relational worldview, in which “social interaction is a process of discovering and becoming fully ‘who we really are,’ forging an identity that is not fixed or predetermined at life’s beginning.” In this view, conflict is not only inevitable, but can be a positive force: “The essence of this view is that conflict interaction – precisely because it occurs at moments of great challenge to the human sense of agency and connection – offers an unusually potent opportunity to strengthen and deepen both. Conflict interaction can actually enhance social interaction, as well as the human experience of both autonomy and connection in balanced relation.” Transformative mediation works within this worldview to “transform” conflict from a destructive to a constructive force:

The mediation process contains within it a unique potential for transforming conflict interaction and, as a result, changing the mindset of people who are involved in the process. This transformative potential stems from mediation’s capacity to generate two important dynamic effects: empowerment and recognition. In simplest terms, empowerment means the restoration to individuals of a sense of their value and strength and their own capacity to make decisions and handle life’s problems. Recognition means the evocation in individuals of acknowledgment, understanding, or empathy for the situation and the views of the other. When both of these processes are held central in the practice of mediation, parties are helped to transform their conflict interaction – from destructive to constructive – and to experience the personal effects of such transformation.

To achieve this transformation, the mediator is non-directive. His or her main role is to support the parties in going where they want with the conflict. The mediator helps the parties gain clarity through reflection of their individual views and feelings, and summary of their joint points of agreement or disagreement. He or she does not suggest options for “settlement” or carry the parties through a set process.

This view of mediation is very different from the settlement-oriented process in which I was trained. In that process, the mediator takes the parties through a set of steps with the specific goal of having them reach agreement by the end. He or she can at times be quite directive, keeping the parties “on track” and suggesting possible solutions to their problems.

In transformative mediation, settlement may be an outcome, but is not the main goal; the goal is rather for the parties to turn their conflict into a positive rather than a negative interaction. This view of mediation assumes that humans have the capability to work through conflicts themselves, and the mediator should support them in achieving that capability.

The most prominent place in which transformative mediation is currently used is the United States Postal Service REDRESS program, for conflicts within the USPS workplace.

Book presentation

The Promise of Mediation is well-written and describes the many new ideas with clarity. I feel that in reading it I have gained significant understanding of what transformative mediation is and why it is important. I have additionally gained a clearer understanding of what settlement-oriented mediation is, and am now able to think with greater clarity about what I am doing when I mediate.

The structure of the book is, for the most part, logical and progressive. Bush and Folger start by giving an overview of the four predominant views of mediation present in our society, summarizing the perspectives of each. In the second chapter, they dive in to the details of what it means to “transform” a conflict and what they mean by “empowerment” and “recognition.” After finishing this chapter, I felt eager to know exactly what it meant to do a transformative mediation, e.g. what the process actually looks like and what specific actions the mediator takes during it. However, there was one more chapter before they gave those details. The third chapter situates transformative mediation within the field and gives examples of the ways in which it is becoming more widely used and accepted. Although this was interesting, I felt that this content could have come later in the book, with the case study earlier.

The fourth and five chapters present a complete transcript of a transformative mediation, with commentary after each of six segments. It was extremely interesting and enlightening, and a highlight of the book for me. Finally, the sixth chapter addresses some myths and misconceptions about transformative mediation, and the seventh chapter discusses in detail the values and worldviews underlying both settlement-oriented and transformative mediation. These final chapters helped solidify my understanding that was growing through-out the book.

Final thoughts

The premises of transformative mediation resonate with me. Reading this book has renewed and inspired my belief that mediation does have the potential to change the world and bring peace. I am continuing to process this new perspective and figure out how it fits in to my own worldview about human interaction, conflict, and the role of mediation. I expect to be writing further posts on the subject soon.

If you are at all interested in mediation, conflict, or social interaction, I highly recommend The Promise of Mediation. Note that there are two editions, with different subtitles, one from 1994 and one from 2005. I read the 2005 edition, which was substantially revised from the first edition, and thus cannot say anything about the 1994 edition. For more information about transformative approaches to conflict, including a more detailed summary of the content of the book, there is an excellent collection of information about it at the Conflict Information Consortium: Transformative Approaches to Conflict.


Organization of the week: Mediate.com

March 2, 2010

I have been thinking about mediation a lot recently (I just finished reading The Promise of Mediation: The Transformative Approach to Conflict, by Robert A. Baruch Bush and Joseph P. Folger, which I will be reviewing in a subsequent post), so for the organization this week I want to highlight Mediate.com. Their tagline is “Everything Mediation.” Although it appears to be run by a for-profit company, I think it is worth mentioning because I come across it frequently in various mediation-related web searches, and it seems to be a good resource.

I find it a bit difficult to easily navigate their website, but there does seem to be a wealth of information on it. There is a large collection of article on all sorts of topics related to mediation; in fact, I think it was in one of these articles that I first came across the term “transformative mediation.” There is also a directory of mediators; individuals can pay for a full listing and extra services, or have a basic listing for free. The site does seem to be targeted towards professional mediators (e.g. those making a living at it, as opposed to volunteer mediators such as myself), but seems useful for anyone interested in mediation.


Why mediation?

February 23, 2010

I am currently reading The Promise of Mediation, which is inspiring me to remember why I turned to mediation as a way in which I can help make the world a better place. When I finish the book I will do a review of it, but I first want to work out for myself why I believe in mediation, without significant influence from the book.

I became a mediator because I believe that mediation has the power to fundamentally change for the better the way in which we – as individuals, as organizations, and as societies – handle conflict. Conflict is inevitable, but a destructive response to it is not. Aggressive, competitive, and dehumanizing responses to conflict, from the scale of door slamming to wars, may smother things for awhile, but can never truly resolve the underlying issues and restore healthy relationships. Mediation, on the other hand, can create a non-threatening space where each party can feel heard and begin to understand the perspectives of the other parties.

It is important for me to remind myself of why I became a mediator because my experiences so far as one have felt like a bit of a letdown. Three of the mediations I have done have been between a landlord and a tenant where the tenant has already moved out and they are in disagreement over how much of the security deposit should be returned to the tenant. Even if the parties reach an agreement, I feel somewhat unsatisfied after such mediations. I can and do feel good about handling the process well and saying the right things at the right time – there is no question that there are some skills I am actively developing by doing these. But in the end it always comes down to quibbling over dollar amounts and finally reaching a compromise that neither side is particularly happy about. I know that money is very important to people, but I really think there’s got to be something more to mediation.

Perhaps part of why I find such mediations unsatisfying is because what I am really interested in is relationships. I want to help people have healthy relationships with each other. In the landlord-tenant cases I described above, the parties can walk away from the mediation and never see each other again. There is not much of a relationship to preserve there. Not only do I care particularly about relationships, though, but I think that helping to build and restore healthy relationships is where the power of mediation really lies. Not that landlord-tenant cases are bad, but they aren’t using the potential of mediation to its fullest.

Another aspect of my dissatisfaction stems from the process itself. In my mediation training, the part of the process that I felt was most significant was the story-telling and summarizing at the beginning. As mediators, we are supposed to allow each party to tell their “story” – what the conflict is and why they are there – and then we summarize what we’ve heard, trying to identify underlying needs and feelings. Essentially, the mediator should use active listening at this point. I think each party needs to really feel heard before they can be open to finding a collaborative solution. In some of the mediations I have done, I have felt that my co-mediator skims too much over this initial portion of the process and is eager to go right to the part where the parties brainstorm ideas for solutions to the conflict. While this can still result in agreements that are satisfactory to both parties, I feel that it again falls short of the potential of mediation.

As I continue to develop my skills on whatever mediations come my way, it is important that I keep my vision of what mediation can be. I know that there is great potential in mediation and I need to maintain confidence that I will eventually find a way to make use of that potential. I do believe in mediation, and I will not let the sometimes mundane cases shatter that belief.