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Becoming Reflective Practitioners

This article originally appeared in the January 1998 issue of Consensus a publication of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program.

I have been a mediator for nearly 20 years, and for the past five years
have directed a graduate program in conflict resolution at Antioch
University. In this article, I want to talk about a process that seeks to
educate reflective practitioners: those individuals whose practices are
grounded in theories of conflict and conflict resolution, who are aware of
ongoing research that informs their practices, and who continually refine
their skills through a rigorous process of self-reflection

My interest in the principles of reflective practice was first nurtured by
an experience at a professional conference where I attended a workshop
teaching the use of specialized practice skills. Following a description by
the presenters of various intervention techniques, I volunteered to mediate
a role play dispute in which I would attempt to use the presenters’
approaches. The result was a remarkable experience; I successfully used
the technique. With praises from the presenters and accolades from the
audience, I was flush with the success of my intervention.

Later, however, I wondered how I had accomplished what the others
were convinced I had achieved. I had no notion of why the approaches I
used were successful; and no idea how I might replicate the intervention
with other clients in another setting. I had dutifully reproduced what the
presenters had demonstrated, but the presenters did not discuss the
theoretical basis for these approaches. As a result, I had no understanding
of the types of situations when these techniques would be useful, why they
would be utilized, nor how I might incorporate the lessons of this workshop
in my practice.

I realized that without understanding the underlying theoretical
principles of practice, we are merely skilled mechanics trying out one tool
after another without understanding what tool would be appropriate to the
task. We apply techniques and interventions without full consideration of
the reasons behind such approaches, without understanding their likely
consequences, without the ability to evaluate the success or failure of those
interventions, and without the tools and resources to learn from each

Theory provides both a foundation for our work and a way to
understand the nature of the process we are managing. It gives the
practitioner a foundation upon which to base an assessment of a conflict
situation and to design an appropriate intervention.

For example, many mediators learn to caucus after the parties “tell
their stories,” to explore further the person’s concerns and interests; and
many practitioners dutifully follow this structure. But, many mediators fail to
grasp the potential gains and risks of separating the parties at an early (or
any) stage in the mediation. In the mediation of a dispute between two
teenagers where the mediator (having been taught always to caucus)
separated the parties at an early time in the mediation, one of the
teenagers refused to participate further in the process. An underlying issue
in the dispute was that one of the teenagers believed that the other had
“ratted him out” to the school principal. Without knowing that history, the
mediator had inadvertently exacerbated the feelings of mistrust and anger.
It was only after one of the teenagers stormed out of the mediation that the
mediator learned this vital information. Understanding the theory that
underlies the use of a caucus might have helped this mediator avoid an
unfortunate and premature end to the mediation.

The challenge I face as an educator is how to teach theory and help
practitioners integrate that theory into their practices. At Antioch, with the
assistance of colleagues Dan Joyce, Cathie Kriener, Alison Taylor and
Mary Ann Zaha, we have developed methods for teaching mediation skills
that incorporate theory and teach the concepts and skills of reflective
practice the understanding of relevant theory, the ability to incorporate
theory into practice, and the development of the skill of self-reflection.

We teach students that they must experiment, that is to learn
something new about the situation, the conflict, and the disputants. An
experiment begins with the development of an hypothesis, a sense of the
case, an idea of what the conflict is about. Then, the mediator asks
questions to test this hypothesis, allowing herself to be surprised, to learn
how the parties view the conflict and their involvement, to understand their
sense of things. The mediator responds to this new information, evaluates
and reforms her hypothesis and again tests out her revised ideas. In this
way, the mediator allows the information from the clients to direct her
thinking and her intervention approaches.

For example, consider a community mediation in which the dispute
initially appears to center on the lack of control of an energetic and playful
dog who frightens young children in the neighborhood. Seeking options for
restraining the dog appears to be the most fruitful avenue to pursue. A
reflective practitioner would test out this hypothesis, ask questions, be
prepared to be surprised by the answers, and not to assume that the most
visible problem is the real source of the conflict. The mediator might learn
that the problem arose only after the city closed a neighborhood park where
the children played and the dog was exercised, and that the parties might
work cooperatively in persuading the city to reopen the park.

To help students learn the process of analysis and reflection, we
utilize a coaching method that includes demonstrations, role play exercises
and the use of elicitive questions that draw out the students’ own
understanding of their strategies and approaches. We assist them
progress in their development as practitioners from novices to artists. To
learn a body of knowledge and set of practitioner skills is only the first step
in which the novice becomes skilled in the application of a variety of
techniques and strategies. In The Reflective Practitioner, How Professionals
Think in Action
(1983), Donald Schon describes artistry in this way

Every competent practitioner can recognize phenomena…for which he cannot give a reasonably accurate or complete description. In his day to day practice he makes innumerable judgments of quality for which he cannot state adequate criteria, and he displays rules for which he cannot state the rules and procedures. (pp. 49-50)

Our experience confirms that mediators learn the artistry of practice.
They learn to take the unexplainable, the seemingly intuitive, and by
describing the elements and pieces of knowing and understanding that lead
to the “spontaneous, skillful execution of the performance…” Educating the
Reflective Practitioner
, Donald Schon, 1987, p. 25), they develop artistry in
their practices. Learning artistry requires a method of professional
education different from that generally employed in professional education;
a method we have been developing with our graduate students and in
professional trainings over the past 5 years.

In an effort to explain artistry and how it can be learned, I asked a
group of students to recall a successful conflict resolution experience. One
student, a social worker, had decided to bring together the mother of
children in foster care, the children, and the foster parents to talk about
possible reunification of the family. When I asked why she did this, she said
it “just seemed to be a good idea.” Upon questioning the student about the
basis of her decision to convene the meeting, she identified many pieces of
information and about the participants about the risks and gains that might
flow from such a meeting. A decision that at first appeared to be intuitive,
was in fact based on a knowledge of the parties, an understanding of how
to help them talk, and experience in working with other families in similar

Of the instructional methods we utilize, the most important is the use
of elicitive questions. In skill development sessions, coaches engage in an
interactive process of questioning to encourage the student to be reflective.

By allowing the students to identify the aspects of their work that
troubled them, as well as those where their interventions were helpful and
effective, the coach supports the students’ learning by helping them to
identify their hypotheses, the reasoning behind their strategies and
approaches, and the impact of their interventions on the disputants.

This educational method differs from a prescriptive approach in which
the instructor “corrects” the mistakes of the trainee, pointing out where the
student has failed to use appropriate skills, or overlooked interventions or
techniques that could have been used. The prescriptive teaching method
generally leads students to modeling the behavior of the instructor and
does not lead to insight; it produces practitioners who are skilled
mechanics, but who lack artistry. Without the ability to understand the
reasoning behind intervention strategies and techniques, the student will
not experiment, and will consistently frame issues narrowly based upon a
set of prescribed problems sets.

I want to present a coaching exchange that occurred during role play
debriefing. During the early stage of the mediation, the mediator had
thoughtfully summarized the first party’s story. Before she could summarize
the second party’s story, the two participants began talking in a very
constructive though heated manner about their positions and concerns.
After observing this discussion for several minutes, the mediator interrupted
and summarized the second person’s story.

MDL (to mediator) Why did you decide to stop their conversation
now and summarize the second person’s story?

MEDIATOR I was taught that summarizing helped to clarify the story
and to build trust with the party.

MDL (to mediator) Would you like to ask the participant if he felt a
lack of trust or connection?

SECOND PARTICIPANT No, I could see that she was being very
attentive when I spoke. I knew she was interested in what I had to say.

MDL (to mediator) What do you make of that information?

MEDIATOR I am aware that I was uncertain how to control the
process. I didn’t know whether I needed to do anything about the way they
were talking with each other. I was afraid I might not be able to help them if
it got more heated.

This mediator became aware of what she did not know, and was able to
identify additional skills and knowledge she would need to be an effective
mediator. I did not need to correct her. I helped her to identify the problem
with her approach and ways in which she might improve the quality of her
practice. In this reflexive dialogue the mediator gained an understanding of
competent practice, learned something about the timing of interventions,
and she learned to reflect on her practice.

What is missing from many educational methods used to train
mediators is the active process of engagement between student and
teacher, the use of modeling to build skills and artistry, the interactive
process by which what seems unattainable to the novice becomes
learnable. The key difference in our approach is that we engage students
in a dialogue, using elicitive questions, building not merely a body of
knowledge and skills, but also the student’s ability to learn from their

If the field of conflict resolution is to be credible and accepted as a
distinct profession, then we must, without sacrificing the inclusivity that has
been its hallmark, address concerns about competence. We must be
concerned with nurturing excellence in practice. I believe we can achieve
this goal by utilizing elicitive teaching methods and by training mediators to
be reflective practitioners.


Michael Lang

For over 40 years Michael has mediated family, workplace and organizational disputes. He has designed and presented introductory and advanced mediation and conflict management courses, workshops and webinars in the US and internationally. Michael created one of the first graduate programs in conflict resolution in the US at Antioch University… MORE >

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