How the Transformative Mediator Helps

For many who study transformative mediation, it’s hard to focus on clients’ interaction (which, as discussed in Part I, is characterized by a sense of weakness and self-absorption in relation to each other)- we’re so accustomed to thinking ahead to possible solutions to their problem.  So transformative mediation trainings give participants opportunities to experience empowerment and recognition shifts themselves.  In one exercise, we have pairs of participants take turns talking to each other about a real life dilemma they’re facing.  We instruct the listening partner to help the talking partner gain clarity but without the listening partner being directive.  In 15 minutes of talking, the participants report that talking caused them to see their dilemma differently.  The dilemma was put in perspective, either it became less troubling, or the opposite, it became clearer just what a big deal the dilemma was.  Or sometimes the talker  realizes that they actually already know how to handle their dilemma.  Other times they realize that they had been focused on the wrong part of the problem and they get clearer about what aspect of it really matters.  Nearly always, they report some sort of progress.  That progress is an empowerment shift.

Training participants experience recognition shifts later in the training, when they role play a conflict scenario. When they play the role of a disputant, they notice that during the mediation they have insights into where the other side is coming from, or they realize that the other person isn’t quite as bad as they seemed, or they feel genuine empathy for the other person.

So with some understanding of what empowerment and recognition shifts look like and feel like, we can turn our attention to what the transformative mediator does to facilitate those shifts.

Core Activities

 There are three core activities that we transformative mediators do constantly while mediating.  (1)  Attend to the parties with a microfocus on their interaction (2) Monitor ourselves to make sure we’re remaining true to our intention to support the parties in their efforts and (3) Respond to opportunities for empowerment and recognition shifts in ways that support the parties’ efforts.

Attending to the Parties

 It’s almost a cliché that pure listening is hard and happens very rarely.  But it’s true.  There are so many distractions that a listener contends with that come from the listener’s own mind:  planning what to say next, noticing the flaws in the talker’s logic, thinking about how to solve the talker’s problem, thinking about what information would help the talker, thinking about what we want for lunch, etc.  So the skill of purely listening to what the talker is saying and how they’re saying it is not easily mastered.  And it’s a skill that many professionals aren’t accustomed to practicing, since we’re used to feeling like we need to analyze and evaluate, so we can offer a helpful opinion.  But in the transformative model our intention is to purely listen.

Attending to the parties is, itself, helpful at supporting parties’ efforts at making shifts.  To focus our attention on the parties is to behave consistently with the reality that empowerment and recognition shifts happen within and between the parties – we mediators aren’t the point – the parties are.  Our attention to the parties supports the parties’ efforts at paying attention to themselves and each other.  As the participants in our earlier training exercise discovered, just being listened to can be empowering.

Monitoring Our Own Intentions

 Many good intentions, other than pure support of the parties’ efforts, naturally arise in us as we listen to the parties.  We want to solve their problem, to protect potential victims, to help them avoid a mistake, to share our knowledge that seems very relevant, even to tell a timely joke.  So vigilance about our own intentions is necessary to make sure that whatever we do in the mediation is consistent with our purpose, to support the parties’ own efforts at making empowerment and recognition shifts.  In the trainings, we spend time exploring the sources of these other intentions, so we can recognize them when they arise.

Responding to Opportunities

 Mindful of our intention, we do and say things that are consistent with it.  The specific moves we make (things we say or don’t say) depend entirely on the context of the conversation.  We make every effort to enhance the conversation by acknowledging what the parties have said, giving them additional opportunities to clarify what’s been said, and giving them the opportunity to decide what comes next.  It would be misleading to name those skills outside of the context of a training, because it might appear that doing a certain skill, say reflecting, would be doing transformative mediation.  But each skill is only transformative mediation if it’s done consistently with the pure intention to support the parties in their efforts at deliberation and perspective-taking.

The Biggest Challenges

For me, the biggest challenge to adopting the transformative approach was my ego.  I like everyone to know how smart, wise, funny and cool I am.  I don’t get to show off much of that while I’m doing transformative mediation.  (Come to think of it, maybe I do seem cool to clients, because I’m so non-judgmental and supportive).  Also, especially when mediation has gone very well, I’d like some credit for it.  But often, after a particularly powerful mediation session, the parties are understandably focused on how much better they feel about the situation, about themselves, and about each other – they aren’t so focused on how masterful the mediator was.

For others who explore practicing transformative mediation, the big challenge seems to be difficulty believing that parties have the desire and capacity to move toward strength and responsiveness.  Especially if one comes from the world of litigation, where clients are assumed to be purely self-interested, it’s an extreme shift to start to see the relational aspects of conflict.  Litigators see hostility as either an attempt to maximize one’s own gain, or when it’s too extreme, they see it as an irrational part of human nature that clients should be advised to overcome.  Transformative mediators assume that same hostility is a natural part of human conflict, a manifestation of weakness and self-absorption.  And we see the distress that accompanies the hostility as evidence that the client would rather be in a state of strength and responsiveness.  And we know we can help with that.

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.