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By: Dan Simon. Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation

When discussing different forms of conflict intervention, the various processes are sometimes listed in order of increasing party control.  Here is a typical way of listing the best-known interventions:

  •    adjudication
  •    binding arbitration
  •    non-binding arbitration
  •    med-arb
  •    arb-med
  •    evaluative mediation
  •    facilitative mediation
  •    negotiation

Often adjudication, that is, a judge deciding, is listed as the approach with the least party control.  In that approach, all aspects of the process and the outcome are controlled by the law, judges and lawyers.  The next intervention on the list is usually binding arbitration.  That process is similar to adjudication, but the parties have slightly more control in that they may have some input into selecting the arbitrator(s).  Non-binding arbitration is next because the parties have the choice at the end of the arbitration whether to accept or reject the arbitrator’s decision. Med-Arb or arb-med are hybrid approaches where, in whichever order, both mediation and arbitration occur as part of the same process.  Next, comes evaluative mediation, in which the mediator attempts to persuade both sides to compromise and often controls the communication between the parties by keeping the parties separate and delivering messages himself.  Facilitative mediation is intended to give parties more control, by giving them greater input into the content of the process, while the mediator still takes responsibility for making decisions about the process.  Negotiation is often listed as the approach with maximum party control because there is no neutral party present, so the interaction is essentially all up to the parties.

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So where does transformative mediation fit in?

I would argue that transformative mediation provides more party control than any of the interventions listed, even negotiation.  The transformative mediator’s primary focus is on supporting party choice.  In any conflict and any intervention, it is common for parties to feel that they have little control.  In fact, one of the symptoms of intense conflict is that experience.  Parties feel coerced by each other and by the situation.  While any of the other sorts of conflict intervention can worsen that feeling, transformative mediation’s goal is to enhance parties’ opportunities to make choices.

For example, a transformative mediator may start a session by saying, “Where would you like to start?”  And the intention behind that question would be genuine to let the parties know that how they start the process is their choice.  If a party then asks, “Well how are we supposed to start?” a transformative mediator might answer with something like, “It is entirely your choice.  Sometimes people like to start by telling the story of how they got here.  Other times parties have questions for each other that they want to ask.  Sometimes people want to set some ground rules for how the conversation will go.  And there are many other possibilities. It’s really up to you.  What are your thoughts about what you’d like to do first?”

The transformative mediator’s intention to consistently remind parties that they are in control, as well as the mediator’s constant commitment not to interfere with parties’ choices, creates a process where parties feel a greater sense of control than they would even with no intervenor present.  It may seem counterintuitive that adding a 3rd party can increase the amount of control that the disputants have, but in the case of the transformative mediator, the parties wind up making more choices, being more aware of their options and taking more control of the situation.  In that sense, transformative mediation is different from all of the other listed processes.

People in conflict often report that they feel that the situation is “out of control”.  Most conflict interventions address that experience by having professionals take control.  While the situation then becomes controlled, it is not controlled by the parties.  The parties in those processes still have no control.  The unique advantage of transformative mediation is that parties go from feeling the situation is out of control, to feel that they have control of the situation, while in the other approaches, the parties have even less control than they did before the intervention.

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