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Mediators, Transformed and Untransformed

The French have a wonderful term for a common phenomenon: déformation professionelle.  Similar to the saying, “If your only tool is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail,” this phrase suggests that people see the world through the lens of their work.  Doctors, lawyers, accountants, computer specialists, and others may fall prey to this ailment.  Think of the hospital personnel who allegedly refer to “the kidney in Room 104:” reducing a complete person to the organ they are treating.

Some mediators have this condition—and it is a very positive thing.  Seeing issues from different sides at once, seeking win-win solutions, being aware of underlying interests: these are useful skills in every aspect of life. A young colleague of mine recently told me that he and his girlfriend, both trained mediators, tend to resolve disputes by reframing, reflecting back, and testing for deeper issues behind the current disagreement (“So I think I’m hearing you say that you feel I’m not making enough time for our relationship.”).

However, it is my unhappy experience that many fine mediators do not seem to carry their working principles with them when they leave their clients.  When they interact with each other, they – or perhaps I should say we, since I do not imagine I have always been immune – tend to forget some fundamentals of our practice.  I have seen this among trainers, community mediators, and even board members of mediation agencies. 

So why should mediators care about déformation professionelle?  Why should they try to carry the mediation skills that they have mastered in the mediation room into other aspects of their lives?  Through the examples below I will illustrate a few reasons.  First, I posit that the mediation field would function better if mediators strived to treat each other with the same respect that we expect from our clients.  This carries through into the board room, volunteer mediations, courtrooms, and so on.  Second, I posit that carrying these skills into other aspects of our lives will help the general public to see the power of a skilled mediator.  Imagine if YouTube were full of videos of impromptu mediations occurring in supermarkets and department stores, where mediators were caught in the act of using their skills in everyday circumstances..   

Take a recent conversation between members of a program’s executive committee.  One member put a proposal up for discussion.  A second expressed concern about the proposal and outlined her reasons.  The proposer immediately shot back, “I completely disagree with everything you’ve said.”  The argument became vehement enough that one of the two resigned from the board shortly afterward.

In another organization, an administrator called a mediator in to relay a complaint about her made by a court officer.  When the mediator differed on what had happened, the administrator replied, “That’s not what I heard,” and told the mediator she was expected to be a role model.  The mediator prepared a written report on the events as she saw them, to which the administrator replied, “You left something out of your report,” and added a further accusation, which the mediator flatly denied.  Although the mediator suggested a discussion with the court officer and the administrator or a neutral party, the administrator chose to “part ways” with the mediator instead, via e-mail.

Perhaps such lapses are inevitable, and common to other helping professions as well. But I would like to suggest some ways we can help ourselves and others adopt a consistent “mediator mindset.”

    • If your board or organization has a mission statement, write it on a simple table tent that sits before each person at meetings, perhaps one with the person’s name on the other side.
    • Open meetings with some version of a “mediation prayer.”  This could be a classic catchphrase – “may we all remember to go to the balcony while also staying on the dance floor” – or a borrowed concept – “let us seek first to understand rather than to be understood.”  Hang these on your walls as you do marketing posters recommending mediation to others.
    • Share favorite short passages from the “great books” in the field, as reminders of what the work is about.
    • Discuss not only challenging mediations from your work, but also examples of interpersonal experiences in your life when you used – or neglected – mediation skills.
    • Whether as a board, a not-for-profit, or a business, make it a formal rule that anyone may ask for a reflection break, or even a formal mediation, when they feel circumstances require it.
    • Likewise, articulate the expectation that everyone in the organization will treat each other with the same respect for personal autonomy and the right to one’s own feelings as they do their clients.
    • Try keeping this quotation from Aristotle handy in your wallet or on your smart phone: “We become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”


The “10,000 hour rule” has become a byword for the practice needed to fully master a skill. It takes a very long time to accumulate 10,000 mediation hours – we are let loose on the world, after all, with only 40 – but it is possible to spend 10,000 hours thinking and acting like a mediator in both your working and your personal life.


Richard Barbieri

Dr. Richard Barbieri is a board member of the Association for Conflict Resolution and Managing Editor of the journal ACResolution.  He is past president of the New England Association for Conflict Resolution and the Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program. MORE >

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