The co-publication late last year by the Association for Conflict Resolution and the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation of Transformative mediation: a sourcebook - resources for conflict intervention practitioners and programs. (Folger, Bush & Della Noce, 2010) is a noteworthy event in the history of both organizations. More than that, it is a significant development for both the community of transformative practice and for the mediation field as a whole. For transformative practitioners, the volume can be seen in a direct line of thought developed, refined and further articulated from its original statement in The Promise of Mediation – Responding to Conflict through Empowerment and Recognition(1994) [hereinafter Promise I] to the revised edition that bears almost the same title, The Promise of Mediation – The Transformative Approach to Conflict(2005) [hereinafter Promise II],but is in reality a different work. For the field of mediation writ large, it testifies to the profession’s growing inclusiveness, irrespective of practice model, as well as to signaling the willingness to engage with the entire spectrum of mediation approaches. This inclusiveness and openness to engagement has important implications for the credentialing of mediators in the adoption of accreditation standards that embrace the full range of mediation practice.

Broadly speaking, the volume is divided into two major sections that are the work of a number of transformative practitioners and researchers. Part I contains chapters by different authors who review the transformative framework. It deals with the model’s foundation in the relational theory that is also manifest in a number of the sciences and humanities; the core practices of transformative mediation; the dynamic between its central objectives in conflict transformation, namely, empowerment and recognition; the assessment of competent transformative practice; and, quantitative and qualitative research into the impacts and outcomes of transformative processes. Part II contributors deal with the use of transformative practice in a variety of conflict settings: courts, community, family, workplaces, schools, ethno-political conflicts, and interpersonal and multi-party settings. Author-practitioners explain how they have applied the transformative perspective within this wide range of conflict arenas, and the challenges they have faced with regard to the expectations of program managers and other mediators, success criteria and institutional and organizational cultures. Taken as a whole, these chapters offer a cogent rebuttal to the oft-repeated argument that transformative mediation is only effective and practical when it is used in conflicts between people in close and continuing relationships.

But to return to Part I, it provides a clear picture of how the model has matured since 1994. For example, in the chapter on the core practices of transformative mediation, there is an interesting discussion of how the mediator can apply the theory in practice. To begin with, there is a need for ‘letting go’, an acknowledgement by Bush and Folger that a prerequisite skill for the process to work is an “[o]vercoming of skepticism about the model”. Clearly, this can only take place when there is mediator confidence or belief that the process is viable and helpful for parties. Here as elsewhere, it comes down to a choice by practitioners of values and beliefs that give direction to the basic premises of alternative dispute resolution: what is the nature of conflict; how can a mediator respond to what she believes parties want of her as a conflict intervener; etc. ADR practitioners will implicitly or explicitly have different answers to these questions and as such, a set of different premises, even when they have not been articulated as such. But the volume as a whole in many ways can be taken as an invitation to dialogue among practitioners; the invitation is articulated in the chapter dealing with multi-party practice:

We also know that some practitioners may find our foundational premises, and thereby the principles and practices that flow from these, unworkable for them and for their particular circumstances. We invite and look forward to an enlivened dialogue across these circumstances and perspectives (Saul & Sears, 2010).

So while ideological, in the sense of an identifiable set of values that inform attitudes and behaviour, the transformative practice community welcomes the diversity of approaches in the field; what it proposes is not a critique of other mediation practices as such but an account of the growth and change of its own approach, albeit sometimes in contrast to others.

Now, having overcome this skepticism, if the mediator so chooses to overcome it, she is then free to closely listen “without any agenda” to how the parties are talking moment-by-moment, keeping in mind how her interventions might support them in their conflict interaction in making their own shifts to confidence (empowerment), openness and connection (recognition).

Again, in terms of the maturing of the transformative approach, Bush, in his chapter, “Taking Self-Determination Seriously”, makes a rigorous case for the centrality of empowerment as an objective in conflict transformation by re-examining instances of transformative practice in Promise I (1994) and Promise II (2005). In carrying out a self-critique of the evolution of his own practice, he displays remarkable intellectual honesty. Indeed, such candid self-analysis is a cornerstone in the assessment process for certification by the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation.

Bush recalls that in 1989 he had argued, “the empowerment-and-recognition conception of the mediator’s role requires a ‘pushy mediator,’ who will not be passive but will push the parties to make informed and deliberate decisions and to reexamine negative views of each other.” The kind of pushiness he was calling for then would, he now recognizes, undermine party self-determination in many cases. By 1994, with the publication of Promise I, the emphasis had shifted from ‘pushing’ to ‘helping’ the parties “make informed choices and to extend (or refuse) recognition”. Nonetheless, in reviewing how he handled the Landlord-Tenant case in Promise I, Bush sees how his interventions preempted party choices about how the mediation process would unfold, e.g., he set and enforced ground rules, and he called for caucuses with each of the parties. In addition, other interventions he made “offer[ed] possible reinterpretations [for the parties to consider] to evoke [their own shifts to] recognition”. He then proceeds to consider why the value of recognition took priority over the value of empowerment in practice, while in theory the opposite is very much the case.

Promise II (2005) makes clear that a party’s shift to empowerment, to agency, is the condition precedent in conflict transformation; the party shift of perspective to recognition of the other party depends on her prior shift to empowerment, to a renewed strength of self and agency. Bush’s comparison of the process differences between the Purple House conversations in Promise II and the Landlord-Tenant case in Promise I is instructive on this and other points. So the state-of-art of transformative mediation “acknowledges and maintains the centrality of party self-determination and empowerment, not only in theory but in mediation practice.” This is a chapter rich in insights not only for the transformative practitioner but also for any serious student of conflict intervention.

Reading the volume from beginning to end, one can’t help but be struck by how unabashed the transformative mediation model is in calling attention to the values and beliefs that serve as the foundation of practice. The model is based on relational theory, as articulated in many other disciplines, on seeing human identity formed in the crucible of individual autonomy and connectedness. In this view, conflict is a crisis in human interaction that leaves its participants with a diminished sense of their own competence and agency, and with self-absorption, withdrawal from connection. As conflict interaction proceeds, there is the classic downward spiral leading to demonization of the other known all too well to conflict practitioners and scholars. But conflict interaction also, the model posits, offers the possibility of reversal to an upward spiral when a skilled intervener focuses on how the parties talk, and responds by supporting their own shifts to greater clarity, confidence and strength of self as well as to shifts to openness and perspective-taking in extending recognition to the other. In other words, transformative practice relies on purposive intervention to support shifts to empowerment and recognition in conflict interaction as the parties engage in it in the moment rather than on seeking to contain that conflict interaction and substituting a problem-solving process dealing with tangible issues.

Interestingly, this explicit espousal of values and beliefs by transformative mediation addresses an often-heard critique of intervention processes in ethno-political conflicts, namely the claim usually asserted by its interveners to value-neutrality. (See Folger and Bush’s chapter on the Institute’s emerging initiative that brings together transformative practitioners and ethno-political interveners to learn from each other.)

As noted above, Part II of the volume offers a number of narratives about how transformative mediation is practiced in a variety of conflict venues. Particularly informative is the chapter on whether transformative mediation can be of use in ‘lawyered’ mediations. Here, Miller sets out a number of case studies drawn from his own practice in workplace conflict. He then proceeds to document his moves as an intervener, why he made the moves, what lawyers’ responses were and how he replied to the lawyers, all the while ensuring that he gave primacy to party choice. His chapter co-author, Bush, acting as a discussant, comments on Case 1:

Although the process invites and affords the opportunity for a broad, open-ended exchange – with both the benefits and the risks that might entail – it in no way forces such an exchange. The decision on whether to make the conversation broad or narrow, open-ended or focused and limited is entirely up to the parties and, where they have legal representation, to their lawyers [emphasis in original] (Miller & Bush, 2010).

While the transformative approach privileges conflict engagement, it does not do so at the expense of party choice, an echo of the earlier chapter on the centrality of the empowerment objective. So for a transformative mediator to foster conflict interaction when the parties and their lawyers do not want it would be “a sharp and unacceptable departure” from the royal road to conflict transformation: the creation of a space for all parties to deliberate and make their own choices about all aspects, process and substance, of the conversation they wish to have.

Also of special interest in Part II is a chapter that examines crime-related mediation in Sweden when carried out within the restorative justice model or the transformative framework. It is often assumed that these two approaches have an affinity for each other, that they both aim for identical or, at least, similar goods; many proponents of the transformative perspective have sympathies with restorative justice. In contrast, le Roux argues that there are in fact significant differences and that they lie in much more than techniques and ‘tools’ but go to their respective ideologies. He argues that restorative justice is founded on values of social separation and conflict control while the transformative model is informed by the value of social connection and through it, the possibility of conflict transformation.

In addition, there are notable chapters on several new conflict arenas, at least for this reader, in which transformative practice has embarked: parental coordination between high-conflict couples; marital mediation where parties have decided at the outset that separation is not on the agenda; organizational culture change in a prison-setting; and, team building processes for intact corporate teams. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the contents of the Part II chapters that offer very rich material and insight to plumb.

In the volume’s concluding chapter, Folger and Bush reflect on past challenges and future prospects for transformative mediation. And just like in a mediation session, they go ‘to the heat’ of this subject. Transformative practice is not only rooted in an articulated set of values, it is, in my words, unabashedly values-based. Indeed, this was to become a flash-point in the mediation community as so presciently seen by Jeffrey Rubin in the foreword to Promise I (1994): “[T]he fact that Bush and Folger are so frankly ideological will disturb those readers who wish for a value-neutral appraisal of the mediation industry.”

One of the benefits derived from this clash of ideological frameworks has been the realization that different values “define different expectations for what ‘good’ practice is. As a result, there is now greater recognition that diverse ethical standards and certification criteria are needed for mediators who practice distinct models based on different ideological frameworks.” Again, nowhere is the clash more striking than when it comes to considering practice objectives. The transformative community sees conflict interaction as the crux of the mediation process. When adroitly aided by a skilled practitioner, such engagement in conflict can lead to conflict transformation, a more productive and constructive conversation in which parties make their own choices about their circumstances and extend (or withhold) recognition of the other. Other conflict professionals will, as mentioned above, find these propositions “unworkable for them and their particular circumstances”. But precisely here is the opportunity for a productive dialogue about the intentionality of our work.

I suspect few will want to read this volume from cover to cover as I have for the purpose of this review. Whether read in whole or part, however, there is much here to commend itself as a significant contribution to the study and practice of conflict intervention. And, the value of this volume is by no means limited to the mediators who have made the transformative model their own. For those who use other approaches, a reading of the Sourcebook may initially afford the opportunity for an internal dialogue with the authors on our common work and interest in providing help to those in conflict. Let us hope that such an internal process of debate with the various contributors to this volume will be the basis for further research and discussion in academe, and for a healthy conversation among practitioners of all persuasions.

by Arnold Zeman

Arnold Zeman is a transformative mediator in Ottawa Ontario, where he has a private family mediation practice and is on the court roster.