Transformative mediators generally don’t reframe what parties say.  We want parties to make their own choices about what they say and about when, how and whether they adjust their perspective. We even support parties as they say things that offend the other party.  We continue to assume that parties are doing their best to regain their strength and responsiveness.

The transformative theory of conflict focuses on the quality of the interaction between the parties.  When the conflict is in a destructive cycle, the parties are less able to behave in ways that benefit themselves or the other party.  When the situation improves, the parties can and do serve themselves better and they act more responsively toward the other party.  Transformative theory assumes that parties prefer to act in those more constructive ways.   The things they say when in the destructive cycle can be understood in the context of the theory.

Below are some examples of typical things parties say and how they might be interpreted within the transformative theory.  They are expressions of the weakness and self-absorption that parties frequently experience as they struggle with challenging conflict issues. Again, we would not reframe what the party says – we would continue to patiently remain present with them, often reflecting accurately what they’ve actually said.  But these interpretations may be helpful to us in remaining patient and present with the parties.

  • “I’m not going to take any more of this!”:  I’m not feeling as empowered as I’d like.  Standing up for myself in relation to this other person and refusing to be victimized by him are essential to my sense of who I am.
  • “I just want this to be over!” This experience of being a victim of the other party and of these circumstances is no longer tolerable.  I want to return to the sense of control I’m accustomed to; and I no longer want to deal with this person whom I’m so confounded by.
  • “Who does he think he’s dealing with?”  I’m not succeeding at communicating my competence and the fact that I’m not someone who will tolerate being victimized.
  • “Who does he think he is?”  This person is acting as if they are superior to me.  It’s not ok with me to have someone to act as if they don’t need to treat me with more consideration.
  • “What can he possibly be thinking?”  I don’t understand this person, and I don’t like that.
  • “The other party is a sociopath or a ‘high conflict person’!”:  I don’t understand how or why they’re behaving like this – the best I can do is assert that there’s something fundamentally wrong with them.
  • “The other person cares only about themselves but what they’re doing is only going to wind up costing them!”  I’m confused about what’s going on with this person.  On the one hand, they’re selfish and scheming, on the other hand, what they’re doing isn’t going to help them and they know it.  So they just don’t make sense.  And it’s very disconcerting to deal with someone whom I can’t understand.
  • “I wonder what he’s up to.”  I feel threatened because I don’t understand this person – they must be scheming against me.
  • “I’d rather pay my lawyers a million dollars than pay him anything!”  My interaction with the other party is the problem.  Paying him anything would feel like being victimized, like failing to stand up for myself.  My interaction with my lawyers is different – I’m not in the destructive conflict cycle with them.
  • “I just want what’s fair!”  I don’t want to be victim; and I don’t want to be a victimizer.

These interpretations are always just guesses.  And transformative mediators don’t impose these sorts of interpretations on the parties.  But our sense that what they’re saying is something like “I want to get clearer and I want to understand the other person” helps us stay calm and supportive.

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By Dan Simon

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.