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Mediation in the Mainstream: the Problem of Observability

When Daniel Bowling and David Hoffman’s Bringing Peace into the Room first came out in 2003, I adopted it for one of my mediation courses at Woodbury College.

Prepping for class one evening, I read aloud to my husband an excerpt from a chapter by Peter Adler. When I finished, he gave me a long, sad look. “No wonder mediators have such a tough time convincing the public to embrace mediation. Even those who benefit from it think you didn’t do a damn thing.”

This is the excerpt I read him:

…I’m aware of the disconnect between how we mediators and facilitators look at our work and how our work is seen by the mediated and facilitated-upon.

Several years ago, Kem Lowry of the University of Hawaii Department of Urban and Regional Planning did an analysis of some thirty successfully mediated cases that had been in a program I directed. His study drove the point home for me. First Lowry asked the mediators in our cases to explain what they did to bring about success. Then he asked the parties in those same cases what they actually observed the mediators doing. The mediators – myself included – gave elaborate explanations of strategies, timing, and tactics. We identified how we went about conducting our conflict analyses and circumscribing issues to be worked on. We deciphered the breakdowns, breakthroughs, and the windows of opportunity both lost and found. The participants in our cases had a very different view. What they recalled us doing was opening the room, making coffee, and getting everyone introduced.

In Mediation in the mainstream: 5 successful strategies for spreading innovation, I stopped at the fifth strategy, observability, so I could take a time out and tell you the above story.

Diffusion of innovation theory tells us that when people use an innovation and the good results are visible by others, the innovation will spread more rapidly. It’s the observability factor.

But, if Adler’s story holds water, and my husband’s smart-ass comment is on the mark, the ADR field has a real problem with using observability to help spread mediation use. When we’re good, when our work is seamless, and when we’re not strutting around to stroke our own egos, we and our contributions may be invisible.

Ways to increase observability of good, successful mediation

It’s tricky stuff, this observability. Sure, you can go on Twitter and promote your successful mediations, as some mediators are now doing, or blog about how good you are, as some ADR providers are now doing. It’s a fine line between building observability and over-the-top, wince-inducing self-promotion.

Credible observability doesn’t come from us talking about ourselves. It comes from others talking about our work and successes.

I’ll throw out a few ideas that speak directly to credible observability, then I’ve got a question for you:

  • Testimonials. But not just any testimonial. Specific ones in which the writer or speaker explicitly says what you did that helped.
  • Tapping people with courage. Some folks who’ve used mediation won’t discuss it with others, even when they’re happy with the results. It’s the dirty-laundry thing. But the blogging, cell phone generation may have fewer inhibitions. You need to find the people with courage to talk – again, very specifically – about what you did that helped.
  • Tapping people affected positively when the parties work things out. If successful observability is about making the good results visible to others, you may have more success getting people who weren’t directly involved in the mediation to talk about the successes. People like HR directors, managers, CEOs, family members.

Ok, your turn. I know there’s a whole lot of ADR smarts out there, so I’d love to start a brainstorm of ideas of building observability in a credible way. Please leave a comment with your contribution (if you’re reading this in email, just click the article title, then scroll down to the Comments section on the webpage that loads).


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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