Sometimes mediation trainees ask why we refuse to give our clients advice. Here’s an attempt to explain that.

Transformative mediators tend not to honor our clients’ requests to tell them what they should do. Our reason is that we want to support their self-determination. What? We support their self-determination by refusing to do what they ask? Yes. But wouldn’t doing what they ask be more supportive of their self-determination? No. Then what do we mean by self-determination? Good question. What we mean is that we support our clients exactly where they are, but we don’t go further than that. That is, a client who says “I want you to tell us what to do” gets support for wanting us to tell them what tzxo do, doesn’t get any negative judgment for wanting that, gets acknowledgement of, attention to, and acceptance of the fact that that’s what they want us to do, maybe gets support for seeking an opinion from someone more willing, and then gets attention for what they want in the next moment. But we do not take further action based on the request for an opinion. Giving an opinion, we believe, would undermine their self-determination.

When we say we “support” where they are, we mean we pay attention to it, acknowledge it, accept it and remain present to it, but we do not then take it upon ourselves to act further on it. Our support for where they are includes the possibility that they might be somewhere else at any moment; so in addition to supporting them where they are, we support them in either moving to a different place at any moment or staying right where they are. That moment immediately after they ask us to do something also belongs to them; we don’t take it from them by doing something. We refuse to distract from their constant decision-making about where they are by turning the attention to us and our opinion, even if they request it.

The concept of “micro-focus” may shed further light on this practice. Micro-focus refers to our clients’ choices in each and every moment of our participation. We pay attention to what they’re doing in each instant. If our client says “hey, look at that, over there!” we remain focused on the client (o.k. we might look over at what the client is referring to, but we don’t stay focused on it - we immediately return to the client). If a client says, “hey, what do you think a judge would do with this case?” we remain focused on the client. If a client says “hey what do YOU think of the point my spouse just made” we remain focused on the client. Our clients can trust that we will always remain focused on them.

One of the symptoms of destructive conflict is the hope that an outsider will come to the rescue. It’s natural to imagine, in our worst moments, that a judge or judge-type person, might be able to appear and persuade our opponent that we are right and that they are wrong. Or we hope that the judge’s intervention, even she doesn’t agree completely with us, will somehow quickly bring peace. The legal system indulges this hope. The legal system provides at least one person, your own lawyer, whose job it is to form arguments that support your case. Other ADR methods also indulge this hope. In Minnesota family law cases, Early Neutral Evaluation has become very popular. It provides access to an outsider’s opinion without as much cost and time as is required to present your case to a judge. Its popularity arises from its indulgence of that hope. Other roles have also become popular in family law in Minnesota by indulging that hope. Parenting Time Expeditors are given legal authority to decide parenting time issues. Parenting Consultants are given legal authority to decide other issues that parents haven’t resolved between the two of them. Their popularity rests on that hope that arises at the worst moment of conflict - that an outsider will agree with you and cause the other person to comply with your wishes. The fact that that hope is merely a symptom of the destructive conflict cycle is lost on the clients and on the professionals who agree to act in this role. The fact that the professional then becomes a part of perpetuating the destructive conflict cycle is also apparently lost on them.

Of course, in certain contexts, these professionals’ opinions might be helpful. These things are complicated. So, as transformative mediators, we support the clients’ choices about everything, including the decision to involve an outside decision-maker or evaluator. As transformative mediators, we often support conversations where the parties decide to seek such input. But our clarity about our role prevents us from being the ones to give that sort of input.

We transformative mediators refuse to become part of the destructive cycle. We acknowledge, understand, and do not judge our clients for these impulses, but we stop there; we don’t carry out their destructive urges. We remain present and attentive, and we continue to see that with patience, these destructive urges pass, and the hope that an outsider will persuade the adversary is replaced by more constructive phenomena: the urge to have compassion for the adversary, the urge to more gently and more clearly explain our perspective, clarity about what aspects of the adversary’s predicament we can help with, clarity about the often narrower needs we have that the adversary may be happy to accommodate. Often, pure support for our decisions leads to our ceasing to see the other party as an adversary.

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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.