“This sounds like therapy!” said the lawyer in my mediation course. I’ve heard these words many times, and sometimes they’re meant as a compliment. Not this time. This lawyer was accustomed to mediation that I would call settlement conferencing. In his experience, parties were kept separate from each other, and the mediator spent time with each side, encouraging them to consider making an offer closer to what the other side was proposing. While these mediators were sometimes patient with the parties’ expression of emotion, they would do their best to keep the focus on the bottom line, the next offer. These mediators would also try to help the parties adopt a more realistic understanding of what might happen if the case weren’t to settle today.

I could understand the lawyer’s surprise when I explained that I see mediation as an opportunity for an enhanced conversation; that I don’t engage in trying to persuade the parties of anything; and that I’m comfortable with the parties talking about things that aren’t obviously connected to movement toward a compromise, including talk of the past, feelings of betrayal, and questions about each others’ character, as well as topics that appear more related to possible settlement terms.

So is transformative mediation therapy? My favorite answer is “No, but it certainly can be very therapeutic”. By therapeutic, I mean that people often feel better afterward, that they often have new clarity about what they want out of the situation, that they often understand each other better, and that they often come to an agreement that allows them to move forward. Some of these outcomes are similar to outcomes that therapy promises.

What’s the difference between transformative mediation and therapy? As far as I can tell, that depends mostly on which type of therapy you’re comparing it to. Here’s my attempt at a list of the most common schools of therapy and how they compare to transformative mediation. I’ll favor brevity over thoroughness here, so I hope psychologists and therapists will feel free to comment below if I mischaracterize an approach you’re familiar with:

Psychodynamic therapy seeks to relieve inner conflict among the id, ego and superego. These conflicts are presumed to have begun in early childhood and to be related to the patient’s relationships with parents. Progress is made as the patient gains insight into these formerly unconscious conflicts and then adopts strategies to change behavior.

Transformative mediators, by contrast, do not make assumptions about the presence of or the origin of clients’ internal conflicts; nor do we attempt to make the unconscious conscious. We remain focused on what clients choose to communicate. While relief of internal conflict might be a side effect of transformative mediation, it is not the goal.

Cognitive behavioral therapy seeks to help clients learn behavior that’s more conducive to happiness. While there are many variations of cognitive behavioral therapy, common threads are the centrality of learning, and the belief that clients can learn better ways to behave and think. While transformative mediation often leads to new ways of thinking about the present conflict, the transformative mediator does not direct those insights, but allows them to arise from the conversation.

Family systems therapy focuses on the interaction within the family. It seeks to identify counterproductive patterns in the interaction and then support the group or individuals in adopting changes and redefining individuals’ roles. While this approach shares with transformative mediation a focus on interaction, it differs in both the therapist’s tendency to be directive in identifying patterns and suggesting alternatives, and in the contexts in which the approaches are used. That is, while family systems therapy hopes to improve family interactions for the long term, transformative mediations tend to be focused on a specific dispute, including disputes between people who don’t intend to have ongoing relationships.

Person-centered therapy: see my recent blog post about Carl Rogers’ similar worldview to that of the transformative mediator. Both approaches assume that progress comes from the clients making their own choices; and the intervener helps by unconditionally supporting those choices. The difference between the approaches lies in person-centered therapy’s focus on the sometimes long-term therapeutic relationship between the intervener and the client. Transformative mediation assumes that the mediator’s supportive efforts can have their hoped for effects as quickly as in one meeting.

Gestalt therapy places great emphasis on “immediacy” - the therapist keeps the focus on the present moment and on the interaction between the therapist and the client. The therapist may use a variety of techniques, such as role-playing, to help the client achieve insights into the client’s own behavior. With these insights, the client may learn to be more fully alive and present. While immediacy sounds like the transformative mediator’s micro-focus on the current conversation, the Gestalt approach differs in that the therapist directs the client toward certain exercises and toward the present moment, while the transformative mediator follows the client wherever they go, including into discussions of the past and future.

It is understandable that the lawyer thought transformative mediation sounded like therapy - there are some similarities. One of the greatest similarities appears to be that many therapists, like transformative mediators, tend to focus on the process (while mediation such as the lawyer had experienced had been very outcome focused). But the differences, in general, are the non-directiveness of the transformative mediator and the fact that transformative mediators are generally invited to help with specific disputes, rather than issues of long-term mental health or family relationships.

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by Dan Simons

Dan Simon teaches and practices transformative mediation in St. Paul, MN. He also writes the blog at The Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation.