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Face and Mediation

Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation by Dan Simon

We’ve all heard the phrases “saving face” or “losing face.” How does the concept of FACE play a role in conflict? Three mediators, Irv Foster, Bob Thompson, and Carol Bloom, discuss why FACE is so central to conflict and explore why FACE is important for mediators and conflict practitioners. Join them for a live webinar on the topic on June 23.

Irv: My orientation on the importance of FACE in the mediation process is that it is quite substantial. And the first part of working with this is explaining: what is FACE and how do we define it? FACE is a three-sided concept made up of:

  • How an individual recognizes who they are, and
  • how that individual is seen in their community, and
  • how they see themselves in their interactions in their community 

Bob: FACE has to do with an individual’s perception of how the world perceives him. So that FACE is significant, because it is a barometer of an individual’s standing in the community. If one has good FACE, then one has good standing in the community; if one wants to save FACE, that’s about how one appears in the community. FACE is about self-perception of external perception, my FACE: What I think of my FACE has a lot to do with the way I perceive you perceiving me.

Carol: FACE is something that manifests as a public identity; our social, community or cultural identity. It’s also true that the experience of losIng FACE or of our FACE being threatened, can play out or manifest within an individual’s internal sense of self. So maybe it’s helpful to say that FACE is both/and; there’s the individual or internalized experience of FACE, like: how do I see myself and how do I want or how am I being seen by others? And then there’s the community, group level or the cultural level of: how am I experiencing the way the other is seeing me in this moment, and is that the way I think I should be seen? 

Bob: It’s reasonable and important to an individual, to want to have a good reputation. So affirmation of having a good reputation is synonymous with positive FACE in a social setting. FACE speaks to a constellation of perceptions, and not an individually crafted, single kind of identity. FACE and reputation are synonymous in certain communities, where there isn’t really much else that people own, apart from their reputation. FACE can be the most critical currency in some communities and some cultures. If you’re a mediator and you’re unaware of that, then you’re going to miss something very critical and your summaries or your reflections will be off because you’re not going to be as perceptive, as aware as you need to be, of just what a primary currency FACE is. 

Irv: Understanding the value of FACE in the particular community, in a particular setting, is critical to the mediator’s ability to hear what’s taking place between the parties. In choosing to amplify a negative FACE comment, for example, the mediator may support a party in recognizing when they have stepped beyond the value or exceeded the value of that FACE comment. 

Carol: We wanted to talk about some of the terminology we’re using when discussing FACE as it shows up in conflict interaction. There are negative and positive FACE comments that can be identified and noticed in specific sub categories, like comments that are explicitly FACE threatening, consciously FACE diminishing, or unconsciously FACE injuring. There are different ways of understanding negative comments from one party to another. There are also different ways of understanding one party’s reaction to either positive or negative FACE comments. Other comments might be categorized as FACE affirming; something one party might say to the other, or that a party could make about their own identity, their own way of wanting to be seen. And there are FACE maintaining comments as well, reminding the other party: this is who I am and how I want to be seen. Awareness of this specific vocabulary or terminology can help mediators to pay attention. 

Irv: I see what we’re offering into the mediation field is a way of developing the ability to hear and recognize FACE comments as well as the possibilities that are inherent in those FACE comments. Mediators have a role to play in this field of understanding where a FACE comment is coming from and where it can go, because the mediator recognizes where they are, so to speak; as in: “I heard that comment, and I recognize it as FACE saving or FACE maintaining or FACE  diminishing. So, as the mediator, I then can make some decision as to what or how I want to handle it, if at all, what I want to do with it, in supporting the party’s in making Empowerment or Recognition shifts. So where the field is right now, is that not many mediators have spent time getting into a position to really recognize those FACE comments. And that’s where I think we’re coming in initially, to help Transformative Mediators get to the point of being able to recognize FACE comments. 

Bob: We also had the sense that  this FACE work will help to mitigate the lack of more comprehensive cultural competency education that we’re doing in the field. European American mediators working in African American or Native communities, or vice versa, would be well served by understanding and applying the FACE lens to their work. FACE can be seen as a fairly universal gift for mediators/facilitators who are culturally dissimilar to their clients; offering some tools that may help them to really serve the parties better.

Register for the June 23 webinar here.


Dan Simon

Dan is a leader in the field of transformative mediation. He is the author of the chapter on divorce mediation in the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation's ("ISCT") TRANSFORMATIVE MEDIATION SOURCEBOOK. He is a Past Chair of the Minnesota State Bar Association's Alternative Dispute Resolution Section. He served… MORE >

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