Mediation continues to be a functional and viable conflict resolution mechanism. Despite that the practice is well established, it maintains an experimental and evolving nature. Different methods and theories bring forward important conversation on how to maximize its effectiveness. The following writing sets out to contribute to this discussion via outlining and examining transformative mediation. Other mediation styles, collectively referred to here as general mediation, are compared and contrasted to transformative mediation. It’s concluded that each approach is useful and valuable for distinct and varying reasons. In addition to yielding traditional consensus building effects, transformative mediation is distinguished by its capacity to create recognition and empowerment. Evaluating how the transformative approach further enables mediation to go beyond conventional agreement making is explored more in depth. Challenges and outlooks are given due consideration. Key definitions, experiential reasoning, and source literature support the ensuing project.
What is Transformative Mediation?
Transformative mediation maintains a relatively new designation. While conflict resolution has long considered similar modes, the transformative model referenced in much of today’s relevant literature was officially introduced by Robert Bush and Joseph Folger in 1994 (****). It may be broadly summed up as a kind of mediation that empowers individuals and groups (parties or participants) to identify and transform how they understand conflict and certain relationships thereof — the practitioner (mediator) can help parties augment self-awareness, self-determination, and relationship-building. Additionally, transformative mediation is a practice that provides support for addressing personal difficulties and developing moral maturation.
What’s the difference between General Mediation and Transformative Mediation?
Mediation refers to a process where a third-party neutral facilitator (mediator) assists disputing parties through the establishment of dynamic communication methods to help them form agreements and resolve conflict. This general mediation definition is perhaps most often most associated with two mediation styles: evaluative mediation and facilitative mediation. Facilitative mediation concerns the coordination of the mediation process — the mediator facilitates dialogue and highlights shared interests. Evaluative mediation takes-up problem-solving — the mediator provides assessment and feedback thereby making informal recommendations (***********). Even though transformative mediation is a practice of conflict resolution, its specific methods, roles, expectations, and outcomes seemingly differ. General mediation involves highly organized and directive methods to encourage settlement while transformative mediation doesn’t explicitly initiate problem solving functions nor strong coordination (**). For instance, transformative mediators ask questions and provide instructive oversight less frequently (**********). With respect to roles and responsibilities, transformative mediators are more like guides than they are problem-solving-orchestrators. They encourage greater party-self-determination when it comes to shaping processes and resolutions (**********).
It might be said that general mediation can often better assist parties in conflicts driven by money, material goods, legal, policy, and contractual factors. Such considerations are commonly cited as being procedural (process, authority, etc.) or substantive (money, time, etc.). A facilitative problem-solving-style can offer advantageous methods for addressing these kinds of matters with respect to effectiveness and efficiency. For example, when two or more participants are in a monetary dispute, and do not have relationship based interests or needs, facilitative mediation may be sufficient in helping them find a mutually-agreeable resolution in a timely manner. Further, the facilitative approach can be used to set up useful processes when examining legal or contractual conflicts whereby the evaluative style is employed as needed to provide valuable expertise and analysis. In many cases, the pressing time constraints of procedural and substantive factors can inhibit the exploratory model of transformative mediation.
Transformative mediation should not be precluded altogether from being applied in procedural or substantive conflicts — even when used minimally, it may increase the likelihood of agreement-making in some cases. Perhaps this is because its modes are well-equipped to address underlying relationship factors and emotional considerations which often unlock buy-in and collaboration. Indeed, transformational actions often arise from the space given to investigate personal and interpersonal matters (********). Overall, transformative mediation maintains greater restorative responsibilities and offers a more holistic approach. It takes conflict-awareness, personal development, and relationship-building to be vital parts of dispute resolution whereas general mediation focuses on facilitating and evaluating conflicts. Contrasting transformative mediation and general mediation in this way enables the respective strengths of each mediation style to surface. Specific conflict related factors and attributes are usually revealed in the early stages of the mediation process — as mediators gather info and build rapport, they may be able to select and apply styles more accordingly.
The Transformative Approach
Transformative mediation has been progressively used in organizational settings in the last few decades. A few good examples are workplace disputes or specialized trainings where individuals and teams seek to improve leadership, communication, management skills, etc. (**). Many practitioners and theorists have similarly linked conflict coaching directly to transformative mediation (*)(***). Conflict coaching essentially refers to a process where a coach (mediator) works one-on-one with participants to enhance conflict-related recognition, resolution building skills, and other important attributes (*). To this end, transformative mediation need not always work towards formulating a binding-contract nor does it necessitate a multi-party scenario. When thinking broadly about methods and outcomes, we might highlight similarities between transformative mediation and practices such as coaching, therapy, and wellness. While each of these domains can be differentiated, they seemingly share a general focus on assisting people with strengthening relationships, and moreover, support well-being, personal development, and personal success.
At its core, transformative mediation is not a prescriptive practice. It does not employ a top down, hierarchical command process (*****). Transformative mediation rather encourages parties to be their own best medicine when it comes to addressing conflicts. It establishes an environment where participants can reflect, discover, and create unique ways of addressing challenges or goals. The transformative mediator proceeds without forcing solutions — as each participant encompasses different needs and interests, the mediator acts with discretion and flexibility to inspire key insights and strategies. This can give rise to methods and options that are situationally specific, emotionally adaptable, informed, and intuitive. While a practitioner’s guidance may be helpful at times, it also may be given sparingly in order to maintain self-realization and empowerment. Similarly, transformative mediators are likely to use a high degree of active listening. In short, doing so can give participants the opportunity to discuss and reflect on key topics and details that they believe are important and relevant in an open setting. Conducting honest reflection in this way often helps parties to establish a better understanding of various beliefs and emotional states held both individually and collectively thereby developing a stronger foundation for resolutions. Altogether, we might say there is a semi-structured natural process and relationship that takes place between transformative mediators and parties — whereas coaching may be applied to carefully cultivate an informative and authentic focus on relevant matters, handing over the reins to participants can encourage and ignite genuine self-recognition and self-development.
The transformative model’s ability to accommodate both individual and group mediations seems to be particularly valuable in response to the steady increase in major societal transitions and divergence in contemporary times. For instance, it may be posited that changes in technology, individualism, and values are often critical underlying factors in many of today’s workplace and business disputes (******). Commonplace organizational struggles for many businesses, non-profits, governments, etc. reveal a need to address interorganizational and intraorganizational conflicts through the channels of practices like conflict coaching (***). Perhaps one reason for this is that such methods allow individual voices to be heard and connected in meaningful ways. This empowers individuals and teams to become more engaged, content, and motivated by restoring or building authentic care, autonomy, understanding, trust, and worthiness. These conditions appear to coincide with attractive and buzzing group atmospheres, and therefore may generally yield stronger participation, collaboration, leadership, and innovation.
Numerous challenges may be brought forward with respect to transformative mediation. One outright objection is to question a central axiom it holds — that is, participants can be their own best medicine in conflict resolution processes. While a legitimate concern, there are effective counter-methods worth pointing out. On one hand, practitioners have continuous access to conducting conflict-assessment which enables adapting to the preferences and goals of the parties. If the participants are not comfortable or need help, changes can be made quickly. It still may be difficult for some mediators to trust the process whereby to decrease creative and cooperative problem solving roles and increase active listening and supporting roles (********). Thus, on the other hand, learning to act with discretion and to possess trust in handing the process over is incredibly important in my view. Being grounded in the notion of trust, and embodying it in an authentic disposition, can play a significant role in activating the will of the participants — a mediator’s body language, tone, and demeanor are influential and regularly serve as powerful signals. In a sense, biting the bullet with confidence and mindfulness can go a long way for practitioners.
It follows that there’s a noticeable variance when it comes to the personal feel for transformative mediation concerning mediators. Whereas many mediation practitioners appear to have a natural ability and inclination towards transformative mediation, others do not. It seems reasonable to think that certain styles of mediation are better suited for some than others. This is one reason that conducting an honest inquiry on self-preference and strengths-and-weaknesses is quintessential for mediators. Doing so may not present a great burden either, especially for practitioners who have sufficient experience working across many paradigms of conflict. Of course, a mediator may also set out to aspire, learn, and develop in areas of lesser innate ability. Given the ever evolving and changing nature of disputes, perhaps there is value in conflict resolution practitioners doing so regardless.
It has also been pointed out that transformative mediation may go too far in its reach with respect to healing or changing feelings. In particular, perhaps emotional discomfort need not be addressed in mediation as it doesn’t always clearly indicate that there is a problem (*********). While the transformative approach may hold space for mediating emotional responses, this claim does well to help us understand that it isn’t always necessary nor optimal. Influencing or forcing participants to confront emotions is not a fundamental step or method in transformative mediation. The core principles of the transformative approach as presented in this writing hold that the practitioner has an imperative responsibility to allow emotional discomfort to exist without making an effort to improve or fix it. This can be a challenging task given the inherent nature of many conflict resolution practitioners. Perhaps it can be agreed, however, that this is accomplishable through diligent practice. Understanding conflict-context, situational-targets, and preferences is often critical when determining corresponding guidance. For instance, in cases when a participant is exploring and developing certain qualities, and emotional discomfort arises during the process, transformative mediators might move to establish accommodation, reframe emotions, and invoke party-autonomy. With care, and in the right circumstances, practitioners may provide meaningful guidance whereby individuals or groups develop resolution pathways through the transformation of emotional dispositions. Another related concern is that transformative modes may directly or indirectly push a relational worldview onto participants (*********). Notwithstanding certain viewpoints on the transformative approach, the writing here maintains that transformative mediation is not fundamentally concerned with promoting any sort of metaphysical or socio-political belief but rather bringing to the surface important awareness and empowerment motives that are unique to the participants or groups themselves. Indeed, we can also similarly point to an ongoing tension between coaching too much or too little. This is where understanding, listening, and adapting to parties yet again plays a very important role in conducting the most favorable transformative mediation practice.
Transformative mediation brings a valuable motivational and therapeutic service to the platform of mediation. Perhaps some of the most beneficial transformational outcomes occur when participants successfully reveal roadblocks and empower themselves to address such challenges accordingly. This is critical in that lasting and impactful change is likely more often a result of decisions made with unbridled autonomy rather than those due to explicit influence or control. The practice further invites the conflict resolution process to not only resolve disputes but also to be a teacher through the enactment of open-discovery. With careful method, mediators may help parties to find the mediator within which appears to be where great value rests. While it might be said that the transformative mediator still has important responsibilities regarding guidance, the transformative approach can take the pressure off of both the practitioner and participant. Again, this type of atmosphere is where freedom of choice can lead to deep introspection, honest awareness, and self-determination. That said, practitioners ought to conduct continuous examination and adapt appropriately. As discussed in this writing, sometimes other mediation styles can offer processes that are better fit to address the needs and interests of parties. Conflict resolution theorists and practitioners ought to think broadly and specifically when considering potential pitfalls. It is important that we continue to evaluate and learn more about the practice through research, experimentation, and discussion. Indeed, it would seem that we are still learning a lot about the approach. There isn’t yet a substantial and cohesive body of empirical evidence behind it, and furthermore, rapidly changing trends as mentioned may warrant that older viewpoints and methods need to be revised.
In a positive summation, transformative mediation adds significant value to the overall domain of mediation. It allows practitioners to interact with participants in ways that fall outside the scope of general mediation. However, this doesn’t mean that the practice offers little or no help in traditional agreement-making affairs. The experiential reasoning and viewpoints used in this writing are generally supported by the works of many other practitioners and theorists which suggest the importance of addressing underlying relationships and emotions when it comes to helping parties form resolutions in many kinds of conflicts (***)(*****)(*******)(**********). Developing comfort and forthrightness in mediation can lead to unlocking myriad resolution pathways. Transformative mediation can help here as it is similar to an open-ended conversation with a friend who is a good listener. The transformative mediator is somewhat like a mirror for participants. There is no force in this way — the practitioner may go where the participant needs them to go. This allows transformative mediators to answer many of the challenges associated with the practice with flexibility and awareness. Ultimately, the transformative approach works to enact reflection, discovery, and self-determination by providing parties the space for autonomy from the outset. I’ll support, I’ll listen, I’ll go with you — you explore, you discover, you determine.
CJ Clayton Jr.
(*) Antes, James R. and Saul, Judith A. 2002. “What Works in Transformative Mediator Coaching: Field Test Findings.” Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal, (5,3,1). https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1171&context=drlj
(**) Bingham, Lisa B. and Nabatchi, Tina. 2001. “Transformative Mediation in the USPS REDRESS Program: Observations of ADR Specialists.” Hofstra Labor and Employment Law Journal: Vol. 18: Iss. 2, Article 4. http://scholarlycommons.law.hofstra.edu/hlelj/vol18/iss2/4
(***) Brinkert, Ross and Jones, Tricia S. 2008. Conflict Coaching: Conflict Management Strategies and Skills for the Individual. Sage Publications.
(****) Bush, Robert A. and Folger, Joseph P. 1994. The Promise of Mediation: Responding to Conflict Through Empowerment and Recognition. First Edition. U.S.A: Jossey-Bass
(*****) Bush, Robert A. and Folger, Joseph P. 2014. “Transformative Mediation.” Scholarly Commons at Hofstra Law (2, 62). https://scholarlycommons.law.hofstra.edu/faculty_scholarship/441
(******) Clayton, CJ. 2019. “Facilitation — Many Ideas, One Team.” Clayton Jr. Mediation. https://claytonjrmediation.com/facilitation-many-ideas-one-team/
(*******) Hicks, Donna. 2011. Dignity: The Essential Role it plays in Resolving Conflict. Pennsylvania: The Maple Press. Kindle.
(********) Irvine, Charlie. 2007. “Transformative Mediation: A Critique.” SSRN Electronic Journal. 10.2139/ssrn.1691847. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228160211_Transformative_Mediation_A_Critique
(*********) O’Reardon, Donal. 2016. “What’s Wrong with Transformative Mediation?” Mediate.com. https://www.mediate.com/articles/OReardonD7.cfm
(**********) Rhoades, Dusty and Vicky, and Simon, Dan. 2015. “Bush and Folger on Reclaiming Mediation’s Future”. Mediate.com.
(***********) Zumeta, Zena. n.d. “Style of Mediation: Facilitative, Evaluative, and Transformative Mediation.” Mediate.com.https://www.mediate.com/articles/zumeta.cfm