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Giving Politics a Makeover

Ruminations on the Next Frontier for Mediators, Consensus Builders, And Others Interested in Advancing the American Democratic Experiment

“The shortest distance between two points is under construction.”

– Noelie Altito

1. Ready… Set… Go.

Politics is a hard business. It has been variously described as war without bloodshed (Mao Tse Tung), the conduct of public affairs for private advantage (Ambrose Bierce), and the art of looking for trouble and applying the wrong remedy to it (Earnest Benn). The word itself comes from the Greek “polis” meaning the collective. It derives from the ancient concept of City-State. Politics is all about all of us “together” and the making of choices about the distribution of power, rights, assets, liabilities, and obligations. [ii]

If you are a mediator or facilitator, this shouldn’t be foreign territory. It is something we help people do all the time, sometimes microscopically in families and workplaces, sometimes with larger numbers of people in our organizational and community settings, and sometimes in disputes over the formation or application of public policies. What we bring to all of these problems is the art and craft of helping people convene, communicate, and negotiate more effectively than would likely happen otherwise. If we know one thing for sure, it is that conflict can be a “transformer,” a way to change people and situations no less than voltages and electrical currents.

For better or worse, mediation has now been adopted and married into the legal landscape. Like many marriages, it isn’t always an easy one but it works. [iii] Now, it is time to scale up our sights and take the central premises and core principles of the last thirty years of our conflict resolution experience and work them into our popular and political cultures. There are several possible “next frontiers.” Getting beyond our long lines of individual disputes and finding ways to transform organizations and institutions might be one of those. Another could be a much stepped up use of conflict resolution for big cases in the national and international arena. A really bold vision might involve changing our political culture.

Can it be done? Yes, but it will take a decade or more of hard work and major changes in the way we frame, talk about, and undertake our work. Are you interested? Are you up to it? If so, now would be a good time to get to work.

2. If Not Now….When?

Politics in Western democracies rests on a theory of adversarialism, a notion that the way forward on any given policy matter is best forged by having elected officials hammer their positions and each other until something useful magically materializes. Just as it doesn’t always happen in the ritualized procedures of courts, this time-honored form of combat is politically insufficient to the complexities we face at home and abroad.

In the heat of our fights, negotiation is reduced to its least effective forms, diplomacy goes missing, and statesmanship is overwhelmed by prolonged nose-grabbing and ear-pulling. There are three hard consequences to this. The first is that legislative and executive bodies become do-nothings and gridlock becomes the norm. The second is that bad deals are made and the public ends up with shoddy policies. The third is that it perpetuates a cycle of competitive revenge in which one party holds inflicts its quorum on the other only to have the situation reversed in a later election.

Like every post-election honeymoon in which power shifts, the newly elected 110th Congress offers a fork in the road. One path leads to continued towel-snapping and locker room brawling. The other takes serious those brief moments when leaders from both parties talk about bridge-building and collaborative problem solving. Mae West once said that whenever she was confronted with a choice between two evils, she always chose the one she had never tried. The door to a new path is open. Actually, it’s always open if you have capable leadership, something Americans are especially hungry for at this particular moment.

So here’s the essence of it, something people who are attuned to the nuances of conflict resolution understand clearly. In the face of tough issues — immigration, health care, energy independence, security and liberty, to name just a few — we can no longer afford to languish in the backwash of stalemate politics. The stakes are too high, the transactional costs are too great, and the consequences are increasingly too lethal for too many people, both here and abroad.

If the next Congress follows the old and predictable path, we will see more pyrotechnics as the nation’s business is conducted through press releases, robo-calls, law suits, special investigators, and dueling polls. The results, of course, will be more of the same: prolonged personality frictions, lot’s of public bellowing, and endless super-heated posturing all of which we will dutifully follow out of prurient interest, but with little warmth, light, or headway produced.

There is another path, of course, one which experienced mediators and facilitators understand, and which my little organization, The Keystone Center, and other similar groups have been trying to use for years on public policy problems. Like our colleagues at CBI, Resolve, Triangle, and others, Keystone provides mediation, facilitation, and joint fact-finding services and applies these strategies to problems that are the traditional purview of politicians: environment, energy, public health, social justice, and economic equity problems that pit parts of the private, public, and civil sectors against each other, that affect large populations and future generations, and that have far-reaching financial and social consequences.

Keystone has a long history of bringing government, industry and non-profit leaders to the table for successful off-campus discussions that avoid (or break) gridlock. Conservation incentives for landowners have been expanded. Old chemical weapons have been safely decommissioned and disposed of. New strategies to combat obesity have been put in play. Pandemic vaccination priorities have been clarified, federal facilities have been cleaned up, and better consumer information has landed on prescription labels.

At this moment, Keystone dialogues are underway on the future of nuclear energy in the U.S., the marketing of high-calorie foods to children, and compensation and mitigation for a contaminated mine in Papua New Guinea that produces 20% of that country’s GDP. Shelby Coffey, a former editor at the Washington Post, vice president at ABC news, and news chief at CNN has called The Keystone Center “a shining beacon to the power of ideas and dialogue.” He could have been talking about any of us. Or all of us.

Keystone’s overarching goal is not so much a full consensus, which is impossible and perhaps not even desirable in a robust and diverse society. The real goal is building new political “centers” on vexing issues and creating sufficient traction for negotiated solutions to go forward. It is about building issue-by-issue partnerships that can both overcome the stasis of political fragmentation and survive the rigorous centrifugal pulls of left and right, blues and reds, liberals and conservatives.

Can these kinds of processes really work inside the beltway and on the roads that lead through our state capitols, county seats, and gubernatorial and mayoral chambers? Or must the work we do stay perpetually supplemental, alternative, and additional? Much of it depends on whether our political culture matures or not. Real political maturity is not just substituting the rule of law for the rule of muscle. It also involves an evolution of intelligent problem-solving, skillful bargaining, and mutual solution-building. When these attributes become the cultural norm and not the exception, our political culture will have matured to a new level.

In 2005, The Keystone Center held a symposium on Capitol Hill to commemorate its 30th birthday. That meeting turned out to be a celebration of politics and its better possibilities. It was titled “Political Courage and the Power of Bridge-Building.” Coming from different niches of the political ecosystem, the discussion included Keystone’s board and staff, Senators Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Representatives Nancy Johnson (R-Connecticut) and Ed Case (D-Hawaii), and journalists John Hulsman of The Heritage Foundation and Ron Elving of National Public Radio.

In that discussion, our panel of politicians and journalists bemoaned the loss of bipartisanship, the decline of civility, and the ever-increasing ideological fissures that divide our polity. There were stark admissions that today’s politics is a full-body contact sport and that one or another version of stalemate is the usual outcome. But, there were also hints of a new wisdom being acquired and of political sea changes to come.

Craig and Wyden spoke of how controversial ideas need time to marinate before the moment for resolution can be approached. Nancy Johnson talked about the power of new information to bring people together. Ed Case shared his experience of bucking party pressures to find kindred spirits across the aisle. And Hulsman and Elving talked about how the press helps shape, inform, escalate, or de-escalate complex political issues depending on its editorial moods and journalistic proclivities.

Through those discussions, Keystone board and staff came away reaffirmed that our “dialogue-by-design” method of tackling hard issues is the stuff of great negotiating. We know, as do most good mediators and facilitators, that the secret sauce of our work requires getting people to sit with their opponents (a sometimes arduous task), advocating in civil ways, and forbearing commitment to a particular course of action long enough to explore a full range of potential solutions. Mix those ingredients with high quality technical information and a focus on practical problem solving, and big things are possible.

All of this is in line with what Jeffrey Luke has called “catalytic leadership.” [iv] This small, not very sexy political philosophy eschews the usual imperatives of seizing control and battering the opposition into submission. Instead, it frames hard questions that no one sector can answer or solve alone. It welcomes divergent values and sparks pragmatic and collaborative action. Most of all, it brings everyone’s leadership into the game to help achieve tractable solutions capable of withstanding the powerful, vocal, often brass-knuckled forces that reside on the farthest edges of the political spectrum.

The environment, energy, and public health problems that we work on at Keystone always sit in the shadows of electoral politics. There is no escape from this, nor would we want it to be otherwise. This past November, Ed Case lost his seat in Hawaii’s primary when he challenged incumbent Senator Daniel Akaka. Nancy Johnson lost hers in the general election. Other good people were voted out, and some good ones were voted in. All of that is beside the point. Any real makeover of politics must go well beyond the trajectory of individual politicians or the promulgation of key ideological ideas from progressives or neo-cons. It must impact the political “culture” in which all incumbents and aspirants live and work. Culture has many dense and complex definitions but, at the end of the day, the very best definition is “the way we do things…around here.”

Our American version of democracy continues to be a work in progress. Even if many Americans arrogantly assume it is better than every other version of government, what we have is incomplete and less than perfect. A true democracy will guarantee that people who are affected by policy choices will have a meaningful say in making the decisions that impact them, not just through periodic elections but routinely and as a matter of habit. That doesn’t happen now. Our democratic institutions need to be updated to reflect our accumulated knowledge and experience of multiparty, multi-issue decision making in the public arena. When consensus building, negotiation, and principled problem become the norm, our version of democracy will have advanced.

3. Getting Beyond Ourselves.

“Consolidating Our Wisdom,” the senior mediator gathering organized by Jim Melamed, Robert Benjamin, and myself and held in October 2006 in Colorado, turned out to be a peculiar amalgam of the hopes, fears, obsessions, hind sights, and foresights of 100 senior practitioners. The conference didn’t produce any breakthrough thinking but it did seem to mirror the larger state of affairs in the world of mediators.[v] It was at once tangled, confusing, inspired, moving, frustrating, fragmented, and (as seems to happen when mediators get together) self-absorbed. If mediation can’t really be called a fully formed field, profession, or discipline, the conference at least showed us to have a common passion for making the world a better place in palpable, tangible ways. As Carrie Menkel-Meadow put it: “It’s a shared calling.”

Beyond some hard organizing lessons, here is the main thing I learned. There is a genuine and pervasive hunger for bigger and wider impacts. Many of the senior mediators who came to that meeting want to take the premises and precepts that underscore our various brands of practice, move beyond the ever present line of individual cases that we all engage in, see those principles applied to larger issues, and get them in currency in the larger arenas of national and international affairs. Most attending that gathering seemed genuinely puzzled that the world outside the courthouse isn’t rapidly adopting our procedures and using them.

Perhaps that isn’t surprising. Conventional politics is all about keeping substantive differences going for purposes of fundraising, voter segmentation, and longer term political dominance. To have larger and longer term impacts in the political culture, we have serious work cut out for us. It isn’t a “mission impossible” but it will take passion, discipline, organization, leadership, and staying power. There are two things we must do at the onset.

First, we must stop being so damn “mediator-centric,” stop putting ourselves at the center of the changes we want to enable, and stop assuming we are the ones to make larger shifts happen. We aren’t. Metaphorically speaking, the most we can aspire to be is something akin to catalytic converters. The real vehicle of a political sea change will be a new generation of leaders in all sectors, most especially elected and appointed officials, who will become conversant with the best of our communication, negotiation, and convening methods. Notice I didn’t say “mediation.” Most politicians see themselves as mediators as they try and balance the tangle of public interests that come before them. And many of them are very good at it. We must de-emphasize the “role” of mediation, focus on the core functions that make up mediation, and take our best knowledge, skill, and insight and make it theirs. We need to give it all away.

Politicians also respond to the fashions, trends, demands, outrages, and pleadings of the public. They read magazines and newspapers, go to movies, and use TV, radio, and the internet just like the rest of us. To influence the long-term behavior of our political leaders we must also kindle the popular imagination with the principles, practices, and expectations we bring to our work. This must come from writers, journalists, movie-makers, musicians, and visual artists of various stripes who can convey our ideas into the popular imagination. Those are the people we must talk to, not more would be mediators who want to change careers and start their own fee-for-service practices.

The second thing we must do is alter our language. The world beyond the borders of our small gatherings at the Association for Conflict Resolution and the ABA Section on Dispute Resolution (and all the counterparts of these entities in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and Great Britain) simply doesn’t share our obsessive fascination with process. People don’t dissect us to see if we are facilitative, evaluative, or transformative. Nor are they at all interested in our endless debates about mediator certification, standard making, fee setting, marketing, the Uniform Mediation Act, mediation as the unauthorized practice of law, and our oh so subtle distinctions between different schools of practice. These “style wars,” as Robert Benjamin calls them, may be professionally and personally fascinating to us as we debate them, but they have little import to people directly affected by American foreign policy, the politics of stem cell research, changes to food stamps, the future of social security, the pricing of imported and domestic drugs, or new qualifications for welfare benefits.[vi]

Instead of talking about mediation, we need to talk about what is root, core, foundational, and inspirational to all of our practices, those political “first principles” that we actually all agree on and try to enact in our work. These include, among other tenets (and in no particular order):

  • an explicit promotion of negotiation processes to solve problems;
  • the inclusion of a full diversity of voices and viewpoints on particular issues that are being negotiated;
  • participation by those who hold a problem in the formulation of both the process and the content of negotiations;
  • the use of high quality information and data to inform the negotiation of potential solutions, including grappling with scientific and technical uncertainty and the limits of current knowledge;
  • the value of skillful questioning and critical inquiry within a negotiation to reveal, understand, and test underlying assumptions;
  • the power of mutual listening as the bedrock for productive dialogue, deliberation, and the pragmatic negotiation of competing ideas.[vii]

These and several other ideas may well be the primal mud for what Christopher Honeyman has called a new philosophy of “muscular centrism.”[viii] And it is this composite, this aggregate bedrock of applied values, that we must now become persuasive on, not our small practice roles as mediators and facilitators.

The question is: how?

4. Fomenting Change

There are many theories and models of social change. Some of them are classical, grand, and explanatory in their scope and focused on society as a whole. Others are descriptive and observational and look at specific functions like the role of technology, the organization of elites, and the influence of media. Still others examine smaller units of analysis like families, churches, and organizations and try to understand the dynamics by which change does or doesn’t take place. And still others are prescriptive and focus on social movements.

In a cursory review of certain social science literatures, G. William Domhoff sees four key findings relevant to would-be change agents:

  • Historical studies of change repeatedly demonstrate that a small number of organized and disciplined individuals who are energized by strong moral beliefs and self confidence in their applications can have a big impact.
  • “Moral exemplars” — people who position themselves outside the general consensus and are at first labeled as “extremists” — can be effective in their organizing provided they are not viewed as too extreme. The trick, he says, “is to be just extreme enough to be an ‘effective extremist.’”
  • Most people are focused on everyday joys, woes, and necessities. They will not readily abandon their routines. Alternatively, would-be change agents must focus their attention exclusively on the social change they seek. “This means that change agents must be patient for unexpected social circumstances to create disruption, or else find effective ways to disrupt everyday life without alienating those they wish to become supporters of their cause.”
  • Any new vision or idea must be carefully tempered to the specific social structure of a given society. What works in one country or society doesn’t automatically translate to another. [ix]

Graham Molitor, former Director of Government Relations at General Mills, Inc, has persuasively argued that important policy shifts can be anticipated in seemingly aberrant events that aggregate into discernable patterns and then become “waves.” There is a progression from early innovators and visionaries which might include gloom and doom peddlers (The Club of Rome), victims and their sympathizers (the families of 9/11), and public spirited crusaders (the Ralph Naders and Jesse Jacksons) to think tanks and government and corporate sponsored research, to pundits and expert elites, to opinion molders who are leading personalities (clergy, educators, business) and finally to a sort of mass learning in which issues or ideas become popular. Molitor shows how each step in the change process takes place in disjunctive waves that eventually add up to a classic “S”-curve: a slow start, a steep rise, an eventually tapering off as new ideas are absorbed. [x]

As waves build, cross, and converge, new ideas gain traction and currency.

Typical Convergence of Evolutionary Waves of Change

Sometimes, events create trends. The Russian satellite Sputnik launched a space race that John Kennedy capitalized on to set forth an American agenda of putting a man on the moon within a decade. Alternatively, sometimes, people start trends that then create events. A mounting anti-war refrain took Lyndon Johnson out of office. Nixon on his own opened a dialogue with China. Newt Gingrich propelled a right wing turn domestically with his “Contract with America.” And some political movements –- the rise of the neo-conservatives — have long trajectories that start in intellectual settings and end in the presidency and the congress.

Along similar lines, Malcolm Gladwell has assembled interesting concepts on “social epidemics” and how small ideas, behaviors, messages or products can acquire velocity, achieve critical mass, and take off into the popular culture. As he examines various change patterns he finds certain common ingredients.

First, social epidemics seem to have at their center three kinds of people: networkers and connector types who know many different people and can link to them easily; mavens and information specialists who have detailed knowledge about a subject and love sharing it; and persuaders and sellers, people who can infuse excitement and enthusiasm into an idea.

Second, social epidemics have a political, economic, or social context that makes matters ripe for a change. It can be a sense of confusion, a disparate hunger for something different, or an inter-tidal moment when one era of thinking has come to an end and a new one has not yet emerged.

Third, there must be a “sticky” message, overt or subliminal, that suggests an answer, or at least a path to one. All of these combine into “tipping points which Gladwell says are “a reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action”

What, then, might be within our grasp if we were so-inclined to do anything?

Assume first that strategically scaling up our aspirations and influencing both the political culture and popular imagination is a worthy thing to do. Assume second that it will take a long time, a decade or more at least. Assume third that we are not trying to alter the fundamental structures and machinery of government but rather we want to influence our political culture in a way that uses the most effective tools of our trade – convening, communication, negotiation, principled problem solving. Assume fourth that we are not trying to create a lobbying group nor are we interested in getting some particular gaggle of people elected. Finally, assume that we must retain our independence (some prefer the term “neutrality”) which is central to how we do our work.

Any agenda for giving politics a serious makeover might roughly follow and apply the broad roadmap described by Harvard business school professor John Kotter in Leading Change. [xi] Here are a few ideas, by no means exhaustive, offered as starting points, that could be organized as a “New American Politics Project” initiated by a few collaborating organizations.

  1. Establish a sense of urgency. In some combination of interested and collaborating practitioners and academics, develop a list of pressing political issues (immigration, deficit reduction, tort reform, fixing social security) and analyze the on-going social and economic “costs of conflict.” Then find imaginative writers in our community of thinkers and challenge them to write articles for popular outlets on the need for a new and better politics to deal with them…..
  2. Form a powerful guiding coalition. Find a few networkers, mavens, and persuaders, stage a small working conference to take stock of the urgencies, and begin defining more concretely the ends and means of a new political philosophy based on higher quality negotiation, communication, and problem solving. As a starting point, review the work done at the “Workshop on Deliberative Democracy and Dispute Resolution” (Workshop on Deliberative Democracy and Dispute Resolution) and encourage the convening of a second workshop with a goal of founding a small, adroit, network-driven entity that will take the best and most actionable ideas from complexity theory, social network theory, and advances in the science of decision-making to alter the way in which we work.
  3. Create a vision. Develop a full articulation of the key principles, a long-term vision, and a strategy for revitalizing politics and infusing it with sound negotiation techniques, civil exchange, and skillful problem solving. Ensure that the strategy includes simple, usable templates for practical applications that anyone can use. Don’t make it too complicated and avoid the jargon and babble of professionals and academics. Write for “Everyman” and “Everywoman.” Approach prospective funders (Soros, Pew, The Democracy Alliance, etc.) and seek their intellectual participation in, as well as seed funding for, a new, small, nimble, and non-partisan “think tank” dedicated to these values….
  4. Communicate the vision. Publish the vision in magazine and book forms. Simultaneously, identify stories that personify the vision and encourage and fund a variety of creative expressions of those stories on television, in film, in live theater, and in the arts. Find prominent, well-placed champions who will give voice to the vision and lend their name as spokespersons much as Bill Clinton has done for Aids, Angelina Jolie has done for refugees, Al Gore has done for climate change, George Clooney has done for Darfur, and Bono has done for combating poverty.
  5. Empower others to act on the vision. Use our networks to connect strategically with thought leaders in the public, private, and civil sectors. This will include younger elected and appointed officials, “rising star” mid-career professionals in the business world, and civil sector leaders from non-governmental organizations, universities, and churches. Create a “pledge.” Convene workshops and conferences. Get on the agenda of other professionals’ meetings. Communicate the pledge to candidates (McCain, Clinton, Obama, Giuliani, and others) and encourage them to sign on. Publicize it if they do, or if they don’t….
  6. Plan for and create short-term wins. Organize “shadow negotiations” to demonstrate and model applicability to important issues. Focus attention on those processes and ensure good publicity. Tagline: “Stubborn Problems, Capable Dialogue, Workable Solutions.” Use these examples and models to garner further attention from sitting leaders and from the public….
  7. Consolidate improvements and produce still more change. In the context of what is largely a national effort, begin to work more regionally and at the level of states and localities. Undertake more localized shadow negotiations, conferences, and workshops….
  8. Institutionalize new approaches. Avoid the lawyerly instinct of turning our approaches to negotiation, communication and problem solving into rules, laws, standards, policies, and procedures. Stay focused on social and cultural change. Make negotiation, communication, and problem solving fashionable!

5. Coda

Here is a working definition of political culture:

“….a distinctive and patterned form of political philosophy that consists of beliefs on how governmental, political, and economic life should be carried out. Political cultures create a framework for political change and are unique to nations, states, and other groups. A political culture differs from political ideology in that people can disagree on an ideology (what government should do) but still share a common political culture. Some ideologies, however, are so critical of the status quo that they require a fundamental change in the way government is operated, and therefore embody a different political culture as well.” (Wikipedia)

Cultures are concrete things. They come down to shared habits of the body, mind, and heart about food, dress, time, relationships, tools, pets, prayers, expressions of emotion, social pecking orders, our expectations for problem solving, and many more day-to-day commonalities. Cultures give us a gyroscope about how to behave and think about these things. They structure our inner geography and provide us maps and codes for moving across social landscapes.

All cultures, regardless of whether they are political, organizational, ethnic, or national in nature, resist change. They also never stay the same. They are dynamic and inevitably alter over time. The “levers of change” are well understood and any scaling up of our ambitions will require that we use all of them: well crafted stories; reason and logic; data that supports arguments; key ideas articulated in many different ways and to many different audiences; constant linkages to local, regional, national, and world events; understanding different resistances and countering them in intelligent ways; and using incentives and disincentives to make a change happen. [xii]

Having positively added to our legal culture, our challenge now is to impact the way Americans do day-to-day politics in the various circles where collective decisions get made. Our greatest enemy is our own smugness and complacency. Eric Shinseki, a Hawaii-born general who bucked Donald Rumsfeld early-on after the invasion of Iraq (and was fired for it) said it best: “If you don’t like change, you are going to like irrelevance a lot less.”

[i] Many thanks to Jim Melamed, Larry Susskind, Carrie Menkel-Meadow, Robert Benjamin, and Chris Honeyman for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

[ii] There is great irony in the quote from Mao since he killed millions of people to accomplish his particular politics. Contemporary biographies suggest he was a genuine monster who thought nothing of killing thousands of people to ensure that one enemy was eliminated.

[iv] See Luke, J. Catalytic leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.

[v] Materials from the conference are available at

[vi] See Benjamin on “Style Wars and Other Little Hypocracies” at

[vii] For an even fuller list, see “From Deliberative Democracy and Conflict Resolution: Notes on the Workshop on Deliberative Democracy and Dispute Resolution (June 24-25, 2005),” by Carrie Menkel-Meadow. Unpublished paper.

[viii] See Kaufman, S., Honeyman, C. and Schneider, “Why Don’t They Listen to Us? The Marginalization of Negotiation Wisdom (forthcoming).

[ix] See G. William Domhoff at Domhoff is also the author of Who Rules America?

[x] See Graham T. T. Molitor, S.A.M. Advanced Management Journal, Summer 1977.

[xi] Kotter, J. Leading Change. Boston: Harvard Business School, 1996.

[xii] See Howard Gardner, Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Mind, Harvard Business School 2004.


Peter Adler

Peter Adler directs ACCORD3.0, a group of independent consultants specializing in foresight, fact-finding and conseneus building. He is the former President and CEO of The Keystone Center and has held executive positions with the Hawaii Supreme Court, the Hawaii Justice Foundation, and Neighborhood Justice Center of Honolulu. Peter can also… MORE >

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