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A Case Against Advice Giving

At the recent Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR) conference in Orlando, a panel member in a well attended workshop commented, “We are all guilty of giving advice”, to which many people in the room nodded agreement. Both the statement and the reaction were bewildering. First, we are NOT all guilty of giving advice and second, if some of us are guilty, why do we do it? We know of no style or type of mediation that is based upon the belief that mediators should give advice and yet it seems professional mediators continue to get caught in the advice giving trap. Why?

We live in a culture where giving advice is almost a national pastime. We like to give advice but we often don’t like getting it. As soon as a good friend begins to pour out a tale of woe, we immediately suggest ways she could fix the problem. Often as not, the woebegone friend is not necessarily asking for advice, but would rather just be heard and left to sort out how to move forward on her own.

Advice is rarely welcome because the recipient usually has already thought of everything we suggest and is more often than not silently insulted that we would assume he is so stupid that our piece of advice has not already occurred to him. Or, we miss the nuances of the story and our advice targets problems that are not really at the heart of what he is struggling with. Advice giving presents us with the illusion that we are really helping. We want to help. If we can’t give advice, what good are we? The problem with advice giving in mediation is that advice is focused on outcome. The birthplace of advice in our consciousness is our beliefs, opinions, and possibly, desires. It is difficult to offer advice that doesn’t originate in our thinking about what outcomes would be best. Our opinions and beliefs about outcome interfere first with careful listening and second with our use of other more elegant and appropriate tools to help parties explore their own motivations, beliefs, interests, ideas, challenges, hopes, concerns, or goals. Advice giving is the most important hurdle for new mediators to overcome in order to develop a full toolbox. It is very difficult to listen carefully around interference from our own beliefs and opinions.

At Woodbury College, where we train mediators in an intensive year-long program, we begin by telling students “the only rule for the next year is No Advice Giving.” We then introduce a range of tools that can only be learned well in the absence of giving advice. Students must first learn to listen well. Good listening requires an ability to separate our own voice from the voice of the speaker. As long as students are paying attention to their own voice, they have difficulty listening to the other’s voice. Listening – really listening – is the single most important skill for mediators to learn. Good listening weaves its way through all the other work that mediators do to assist parties in resolving conflicts.

Some of the additional tools we train mediators to use instead of advice giving include: the crucial, but not always easy task of identifying interests; hearing the difference between positions and interests; reflecting what we hear to ensure we got it right; developing good questions for various segments of the mediation such as clarifying issues and interests and to help explore options; recognizing opportunities for acknowledgment; accurately framing the issues presented by the parties; developing appropriate strategies for generating options; and connecting and building trust. Mediators must also explore their own biases, conflict styles, values, and belief systems in order to differentiate between self and other. Once this foundation of tools, skills, and self awareness is firmly laid, the mediator must then integrate this knowledge into the rich fabric of his or her own personal strengths and weaknesses.

Christopher Moore in The Mediation Process devotes no more than two pages to discussion of mediator suggestions (pg. 288-9). Mediator suggestions are not the same as advice giving and when mediators consider offering suggestions, Moore advises that this strategy not be used by the mediator until parties have fully explored their own thinking. Even then, the recommended approach of including a range of suggestions, rather than one idea, forms an important distinction between giving suggestions and giving advice.

Advice giving, if used at all, is directed toward improving the process parties are using to communicate, and assisting them in developing better approaches to problem solving. The mediator, after all, has been invited into the conversation in order to bring some level of expertise, specifically conflict and communication expertise. (It is not surprising that parties sometimes expect the mediator to give advice, given the nature of our advice-giving culture, but it is the mediator’s responsibility to explain clearly the difference between the mediator’s role and the role of the attorney, therapist, educator, etc.) Our students at Woodbury have no training in deciding the best outcome for any given conflict, but have extensive training in ways of approaching disagreements that give the discussion its best chance of producing an acceptable outcome for the parties.

All styles/types of mediation offer a skill set worth learning. It is not helpful to say that one style of mediation is, in and of itself, better than another. We should be embracing all styles of mediation and gathering them into one coherent collection of available skills and approaches. The more tools we have in our toolbox, the better able we are to adapt to the situation presented to us. The transformative tool of acknowledgment and recognition, the narrative approach of working with parties to create an alternative story, the evaluative benefit of helping parties consider their BATNA, the problem solving tool of effective problem framing are all useful and take considerable skill to do well. We need all the tools we can get and we need the wisdom to select the appropriate tool for the situation. Advice giving seems to be a fallback position when the mediator is stumped about what to do. In other words, we become guilty of giving advice when we have not filled our toolbox with every available mediation tool and learned well how to use them.

In Yann Martel’s provocative book Life of Pi the youthful main character Pi studies Hinduism, Christianity and Islam in turn and embraces all three. When the holy men who have been his teachers discover his involvement in the other religions they agree on one thing: “But he can’t be a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim. It’s impossible. He must choose.” Pi’s reply is “I just want to love God.” A debate on the merits of different types of mediation is misplaced. We should instead be talking about how to be good mediators.

As professional mediators, we are faced with an important challenge in defining what we do, clearly enough, so the public understands the value of our services. We obviously have many different approaches and styles that fall under the heading of mediation, and our ongoing professional discussion about style is worth having. However, prior to the aforementioned ACR conference the one thing we believed we actually held in common as a field of mediators, was the belief that advice giving is the purview of attorneys, therapist, educators, but NOT mediators. It is our hope that ACR will begin to develop deeper and broader professional training expectations and criteria, so that we can look forward to a time when it will not be so easy to say “we are all guilty of giving advice”, nor so easy to agree with that statement. We tell our students “Don’t worry about advice giving. You’ll never forget how to give it.” Miraculously, once they are well trained they decide they don’t need it.


Alice Estey

Alice Estey is a former director of the Mediation & Conflict Management Program at Woodbury College and has a private mediation practice. She is an experienced faculty member and instructor in mediation skills, negotiation, and victim-offender mediation. Alice earned a B.S.W. from Colorado State University, a Certificate in Mediation from Woodbury… MORE >


Sandi Adams

Sandi Adams has been working in conflict resolution for 22 years teaching, training, and providing direct services. A past director of Woodbury College Mediation Program, she currently maintains a private practice and teaches at UNC-Wilmington. She is author of What the Fly Heard: What mediators say behind closed doors. MORE >

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