Bush and Folger articulated the transformative approach in The Promise of Mediation. And a briefer description of it can be found here.  I wrote my own description recently (very much inspired by Bush and Folger), as part of a correspondence with someone who was considering providing mediation training to members of his organization.  I find it helpful to remind myself of these basics once in a while – there is so much pressure out there to conform to the more-popular controlling approaches.  Here’ s my description of some of the basics:


First Generation Approach: Interest-Based or Problem-Solving: Until recently, mediation and negotiation theory have been dominated by the interest-based, aka problem-solving, framework.  The assumption has been that parties in conflict need help sorting out their needs and distributing the available resources in a way that maximizes the meeting of needs, that is, a “win-win” solution.  Intervenors (mediators) have therefore very directively sought to identify the needs, define the issues, and guide a conversation about possible solutions.

Another First Generation Approach:  The Harmony Model:  Another first generation approach, popular in the world of restorative justice, (and this one often gets conflated with the transformative model) has been called the harmony model – its primary goal is the restoration of harmonious relationships.  (While restoration of harmonious relationships is a common side effect of transformative mediation, that is not the transformative mediator’s goal).  For more on the differences between the transformative model and the harmony model see this article by Joe Folger here.

Limitations of the First Generation Approaches: But these approaches often interfere with a more important and more fundamental aspect of human conflict.  That important, fundamental aspect is the quality of the interaction between the parties.  That is, the interaction of parties in conflict is characterized by defensiveness, self-absorption, a sense of being victimized, and mutual demonization.  When an intervenor focuses on “solving the problem” or “getting needs met” or on restoring the relationship, that intervention often comes at the expense of improving the interaction.  Any pushing by the intervenor perpetuates each side’s sense of weakness, and inhibits the possibility of mutual compassion emerging. That is, parties continue to feel victimized by each other, and continue to see each other in a negative light.  Thus, even a “solution” is likely to be only temporary, as distrust and mutual demonization persist.  And further, when the mediator directs toward his or her own idea of a preferred outcome, even those very outcomes are likely to be reached at a more superficial and less durable level.  So paradoxically, a more effective route toward any of these outcomes (win-win settlements or restored relationships) involves a mediator focused on process, not outcome.

The Transformative Approach: The transformative approach focuses on a process of supporting a change in the interaction, which makes the current and future problems much easier to solve, due to reduced demonization and increased trust.  The transformative approach benefits from an understanding of human nature that assumes that people prefer not to be victimized, but also prefer not to be victimizers.  When people are given support for communicating on their own terms (without concern about the intervenors’ judgments, and without fear that the intervenor will push them in a certain direction) the natural human desire to regain a sense of strength and also a sense of compassion leads to improvements on these levels.

Transformative Techniques: The techniques of transformative intervention therefore involve non-directive support for the parties’ process of decision-making and communicating.  Mediators do such things as faithfully, accurately reflecting what each party has communicated, without reframing it.  They pay full attention to the parties themselves, without the distraction of a pre-determined agenda that the intervenor might have.  (Even “peace”, a desired outcome by all intervenors, is not substituted for the goals of the parties – it is considered counterproductive for an intervenor to push for peace, while a party may have a concern that they find more compelling.)  The intervenor’s focus directly on the parties’ concerns decreases any pressure that the parties feel, and enables them to make more thoughtful, more considered, stronger, and more compassionate decisions – not because the mediator nudged them there, but because the parties themselves had the opportunity to find their own way there.  Also, the transformative intervenor supports parties’ process of figuring out whom to talk to, when, and about what.  For conflicts involving large groups, these interventions are helpful in allowing differences within groups to be addressed, creating the possibility of more unified, more coherent, and more trustworthy interactions with the external group.

Supportive Research: The greatest body of research that exists on mediation arose from the US Postal Service’s REDRESS program for discrimination claims (no one’s gone “postal” since this program started).  This research showed 80% of disputes resolved and 90% of parties satisfied with the process and the mediator.  The organization that has led the way in thinking through the transformative framework is the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation.

Again, this is my take on the evolution of mediation.  I’d be happy to hear your comments.

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.