Narrative mediation is a style of mediation that focuses on the story of the relationship between the people who are in dispute and looks to heal this relationship as well as resolve the dispute. It focuses on how each party tells their story and the unique moment where the stories intersected in a way that caused a rift in the relationship. By telling their stories, the parties can see how the dispute affects the other party and their relationship, and they can turn their attention back to each other and how to achieve real change in the relationship and the dispute. The goal of narrative mediation is to shift the dominant discourse to one that is focused on relational and collaborative practices. When disputes are tearing a relationship apart. Narrative mediation may be a good option to keep or restore the relationship while still resolving the dispute instead of pushing it aside.
This article will examine narrative mediation, defining the term and examining the goals of narrative mediation. It will then outline the process of narrative mediation before comparing that process to traditional mediation. Next, it will examine the techniques used in narrative mediation and how the mediator is an integral part in encouraging the parties toward reframing the story and reaching a resolution. Finally, it will end with a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the method and how it can be used effectively.
Narrative Mediation Defined:
Narrative mediation is an approach to mediation that focuses on the power of the story and how it shapes conflict. The driving force behind narrative mediation’s structure is that everyone exists within a story. Each person has an idea of what happened at any given moment and that occasionally, those narratives and stories interact. And when these narratives interact, there is the possibility that there will be differences in how something is interpreted or perceived. According to the narrative mediation model, these differences are often the cause of disputes and conflict. When people see the same interaction with their own perspective, there can be disagreements and perceived aggression. Narrative mediation seeks to understand these stories and find ways for the parties to overcome their differences. The ultimate goal of narrative mediation is to create a common narrative that the parties can agree on.
In many cases, a conflict will not be solved until the parties have identified the root cause of the problem and worked to resolve the issue. However, identifying the root cause is not the easiest process, especially when the conflict is long and drawn out or the parties have a history of conflict. However, narrative mediation can be helpful in identifying the cause because it examines both the facts and the emotions that accompany them. It may be that the way a situation was approached is the cause of the conflict, not the disagreement that ensued. When people tell their stories, they often add in details that are not evident in other discussions and help the opposing party see what is the true issue.
To better understand narrative mediation and the ethos of the movement, a few terms should be defined. These terms are central to the approach and illustrate how narrative mediators think about the work. These terms are:
- Meta-Narrative: The meta-narrative is the way in which the world relates to the story for each person. These are the rules, morals, biases, and experiences that affect the ways that each party reacts to the conflict and the process. These will often be revealed as each person shares their story, and they are important for the mediator to identify because they will influence what the parties will need to resolve the dispute within their meta-narrative.
- Conflict Narrative: The conflict narrative is the story of the conflict told from each person’s point of view. It includes the time leading up to the conflict and the time after, highlighting the areas of the interaction or interactions that caused the rift. How each person tells their story will help the mediator understand what caused the problem as well as what each party will need to feel comfortable resolving the conflict. Each person will reveal what they believe caused the conflict and how they see the problem.
- Alternative Narrative: This is the story that each person will tell about the ideal situation for the conflict to be resolved. This further develops an understanding of what is important to each party and how they will be able to resolve the conflict. Using a story allows the parties to reveal what they need without blatantly disclosing it, which many people are more comfortable doing.
These ideas are important because they shape the process and outline how mediators are able to gather information from each party. Not everyone wants to talk about the problem, and some people may not have the language to identify the root cause of the issue is. Using this understanding of a narrative structure will help the mediator identify and resolve issues.
Within the conflict narrative, as described above, more elements help the parties and the mediator breaks apart or deconstruct, the conflict narrative. Identifying these features will help the parties identify the root cause of the conflict and the possibility of resolution. These elements include:
- Characters: The characters in a conflict narrative are everyone that is involved in some way. This can be important to identify because it can help identify when the issue was caused by an action separate from but related to the incident in question or when there are conflicts between more than two parties. It can also help to define who is involved in the conflict, how they are involved, and how the parties view each other.
- Subject: The subject of a conflict narrative is the center of the conflict. It is the aspect of the story that the conflict is about. The important distinction here is that this is the concrete aspect of the conflict, not the perceptions that continued or increased the conflict. This is often what the parties believe the issue is about, and it will need to be resolved to help the parties move forward.
- Context: Context is the feelings, thoughts, and places surrounding the conflict. This is where the other causes of conflict are evident and the mediator can identify where the parties are in a dispute outside of the subject. It can also point the mediator toward ways to assist the parties in putting together a compromise that will help them move forward.
- Storyline: The storyline is the way each party describes the problem. It is the combination of the other elements to create a story for each person. It creates a narrative of the conflict as one party sees it and how the parties could possibly move forward. The cohesive storyline allows the mediator to identify complicating factors in the conflict and consider possible solutions.
By moving through each person’s storyline, the mediator can see the common ground between the parties and the places where they differ. In some cases, the parties will not be very far apart, and finding a solution can be relatively painless. In other situations, it will seem as if the parties experienced two different events. In either case, it is the mediator’s role to help the parties find common ground, even when they start far apart.
One major difference between the narrative approach and other types of mediation is the process that the parties will encounter. While we will discuss this in-depth later, traditional mediation will often move through a linear path to a resolution. Narrative mediation, on the other hand, moves through a cyclical process, often returning to other steps or working through multiple stages at the same time. There are three stages in narrative mediation—engagement, deconstruction, and coauthors. However, these are not distinct stages and often shift from one to the other quickly. In an easy narrative mediation, these stages would proceed in order as listed below; however, this is rarely, if ever, the case. A mediator will often need to move back to help the parties move forward. Each stage is important, and the parties will learn more about themselves and the conflict as they move forward.
This is the portion of the mediation process where the mediator will build rapport with the parties and establish how the process will work. This can happen in a joint session with the parties, or the mediator may choose to meet each party individually. This step is also where each party will share their version of the narrative with the mediator, and the mediator will ask clarifying questions to help understand what each person sees as the source of conflict and how they may be able to move forward. After the party shares their story, the mediator will explain the goal of narrative mediation and how they will help the parties to construct a story of the conflict and resolution that will help the parties move forward. If this process happened in separate sessions, there will usually be a time where the parties meet together with the mediator and share their narratives. This meeting will be facilitated by the mediator to ensure that the parties respect each other and the process.
After the parties have heard the individual stories, the mediator will lead them through a process to “deconstruct” the narrative of conflict. This involves implementing many of the techniques that will be described below to separate the conflict and help the parties tear the conflict down while respecting the other party. Often, conflict stems from a breakdown in communication or difference in style, but the parties will see the conflict as an immutable character flaw of the other party. The mediator will help the parties ask questions to challenge that narrative and see the true root of the dispute. They will ask the parties to externalize the problem and reframe statements to move the parties away from integration between personality and conflict. This flip will help the parties see the other in a better light and encourage open communication about how they are feeling. The mediator makes the problem a villain of which the parties are victims and removes the assumption that one party is the victim of the other. When the parties begin to shift their focus, they can begin to identify “building blocks” that they can use to create a new story together.
Coauthoring is the process of creating a new narrative in which the parties work together to solve the problem. The mediator will lead the parties through the process of identifying how they can work together and what strengths they can bring to the issue as a team. By asking questions, the mediator will challenge the narrative that this relationship is ruined by conflict and instead suggest ways that the parties can renew, rebuild, or shape their relationship in the future. It forces the parties to work together in a way that they have not been able to do and identifies concrete steps the parties will need to take to accomplish the goal of resolving conflict. By shifting the focus to collaboration against a problem from animosity and adversarial threats, the parties can see how much more they can accomplish moving forward. When the parties are able to agree, it can be helpful to write down the new story and identify the steps the parties need to take to tackle the challenge together.
As stated above, this process rarely moves linearly. A group may be in the coauthoring stage and need to return to the deconstruction phase to reframe a portion of the narrative or go all the way back to engagement so the mediator can clarify an aspect of the original narrative and context. This allows freedom in the process and can spark creativity or help the parties move past a point of tension or strong emotion. This process allows the parties to reframe their conflict and relationship in the future.
Narrative Mediation vs. Traditional Mediation:
Traditionally, mediation is a process facilitated by a neutral third party where disputants negotiate with each other to resolve a conflict. There are a variety of styles of mediation, but most of them contain the following characteristics:
- Solutions: The mediator will encourage the parties to come up with solutions to the problem. Depending on the mediator’s style, they may suggest solutions, while other mediators will allow the parties to drive the discussions and solutions. However, in all cases, solutions to the problems presented are sought.
- Neutral: The mediator will be a third-party person who is neutral in the situation. This is important so that all the parties feel comfortable speaking freely and sharing their ideas. Neutrality means that they are not tied to any party in a way that may influence their thinking and that they have no stake in the problem presented or the solutions.
- Bargaining: The parties will eventually make their way to bargaining, either separately through the mediator or in a joint session, and will move toward a solution. This will follow most of the steps of negotiation—offer, counteroffer, and agreement. It is unlikely to have many stops and starts in a mediation.
- Formal: The parties will hire a mediator who will lead them through the process of coming to a solution. There will be a set of rules to be followed and an agreement between the participants regarding the process. It will also usually take place in a designated mediation spot for a day or two.
Considering these characteristics, there are some instances where the two forms of mediation align, yet there are also some distinctions that make narrative mediation more than just a style of traditional mediation and instead, a different approach. Moving through the characteristics above, narrative mediation has the following distinctions:
- Story over Solution: While the goal of narrative mediation is for the parties to discuss a situation where they would be able to move past the conflict, narrative mediation speaks about this solution in the story form of what the parties will need moving forward. Traditional mediation will have the parties discussing these solutions as abstract concepts, and narrative mediation will have the parties work out a step-by-step process together.
- Neutral: A narrative mediator will also be a neutral third party. Similar to traditional mediation, this allows the parties to feel comfortable sharing with the mediator and not like they are working against the mediator. It is important for the parties to feel comfortable sharing their views and ideas with the mediator. It is especially important when they are telling their conflict story.
- Coauthoring over Bargaining: While traditional mediation can be somewhat collaborative, it still carries an element of that adversarial bargaining that can happen. Narrative mediation may begin with the parties very far apart on what they want or need moving forward, but it should transition into a phase where the parties are creating a story of resolution together, rather than bargaining with each other.
- Informal: Narrative mediation tends to be less formal than traditional mediation. While it still involves the formal process of the parties sitting down with a mediator to address the situation, it does not have the formal negotiation setting that a standard mediation would have.
Besides these distinctions, there are some other aspects that make narrative mediation unique, such as it is the only approach that a mediator will use in a mediation session, unlike traditional mediation where the mediator may move between styles as they lead the mediation and the parties need difference guidance. While narrative mediation is a form of mediation, the distinctions do tend to make it its own form of alternative dispute resolution.
Techniques Used in Narrative Mediation:
Because narrative mediation is unique, there are techniques used in narrative mediation that set the method apart. A trained and experienced narrative mediator will employ these techniques throughout the mediation to encourage the parties to start moving toward resolution. These techniques help draw the parties out of their own self-serving bias and into a story that will benefit everyone involved. Several of these techniques include:
- Paraphrasing: Parties will often mishear or misunderstand what the other party is saying when there is a conflict between them. However, having the mediator repeat what the party said or paraphrase the gist of what was said may help the other party to receive the information more fully and to consider it. When it comes from the mediator, it is more likely that the party will receive it.
- Externalization: This technique has the mediator asking the parties to examine which emotions the opposing party stirs up in them. Once the emotion is defined, the parties will discuss how that emotion begins and how it manifests. This technique will often help the parties understand where the strong emotions are coming from and what it is about the other party that causes them to feel that way. This can lead to establishing new norms between the parties to avoid the strong emotions that are interfering with their ability to settle.
- Double Listening: Double listening involves flipping negative aspects of their story and flipping them into positive aspects. This most often comes into play when the parties need to express their anger or frustration with the other party in a more productive way. This often happens in the context of discussions about necessary actions that need to be taken to create an alternative narrative. For example, if one of the parties says that to resolve the conflict they need the other party to stop being so closeminded about solutions, the mediator may have that party rephrase the thought to say that they need the other party to consider the solutions with the same weight as their own. This technique helps ensure that the discussion remains cordial and that the parties are focused on solving the solution instead of what they dislike about the other person. It contributes to the goal of shifting the focus of the conflict away from the person to the concrete situation that is causing conflict.
These techniques are not the only techniques that a narrative mediator will use, but these are some of the more unique ways that the mediator will attempt to keep the parties on task with the solution. These techniques can also be useful in other forms of mediation, but find their home in narrative mediation.
Why Narrative Mediation Works:
Learning and understanding the narrative mediation process is helpful, but it may be hard to tell how narrative mediation can be more helpful than other mediation or alternative dispute resolution techniques. However, there are a few benefits that are evident in mediation that are just as evident, if not more so, in narrative mediation. These benefits include:
- Relationship: Narrative mediation is one of the best options when the parties are hoping to walk away from the conflict with some sort of relationship, whether it be a business or familial relationship. Because narrative mediation seeks to remove the conflict from the person, it helps the parties see each other in a better light than they had leading up to the mediation. It also encourages collaboration, which removes the adversarial aspect in a way that other forms of mediation or alternative dispute resolution do not.
- Control: Mediation gives the parties control over the outcome of the dispute that is not awarded if the parties go through litigation. In narrative mediation, the parties even have a chance to determine how the solution will be carried out by creating an alternative narrative and using it to create a new way forward.
- Confidential: Most of the time, mediation is confidential unless the parties agree otherwise. This is a strength because it allows the parties to know that they can speak freely, and nothing will be discussed again outside of the mediation. In narrative mediation, this allows the parties to be honest about their emotions and what they need to come up with a new path forward.
- Supportive: Narrative mediation is a supportive process. The mediator will help the parties understand the other’s position and encourage the parties to ask questions to find a solution. This can encourage parties who are attempting to settle but are struggling to talk to each other effectively. Narrative mediation will help the parties identify any issues and move forward with a settlement agreement that the parties are confident in.
- Logistics: Narrative mediation is also helpful for parties in several logistical ways. It is convenient because the parties can choose the date, time, and location, unlike litigation. It tends to be faster and cheaper than other forms of dispute resolution because it is effective. It is also voluntary, so a party may choose to stop participating in the process at any time, making it flexible.
Narrative mediation works because it uses story, something that everyone is familiar with, to discuss difficult disputes and navigate relationships that are strained. It gives the parties a new perspective on their dispute and helps to find ways that they can move past the conflict and restore their relationship. It tells a story of a world where the conflict is resolved and challenges the parties to live into that story. Narrative mediation shares some similarities with traditional mediation, but it differs in distinct ways that make it particularly effective when it is needed. By applying the goal of creating a collective story to resolve their dispute, parties find a new lease on their relationships and move into a conflict-free world together.