Find Mediators Near You:

Narrative Mediation: A Transformative Approach to Conflict Resolution

First published in the African Initiative for Mediation Quarterly Newsletter dated March 2007.


The purpose of this paper is to illustrate the value of narrative mediation as an effective approach to working with conflict in the South African context. The paper will begin with a brief perspective on the role of mediation in relation to the South African experience and it will then move on to outline the central principles of narrative mediation and its relevance to this context.

The discussion will show how the integration of narrative therapy within mediation creates a practice that has the capacity to be both empowering and transformative. It must be clear from the outset that the paper does not purport to offer a comprehensive or critical review of this wide-ranging topic. It relies heavily on the seminal work of Winslade and Monk (2000) to describe a working model for the practice of narrative mediation, with the intention of stimulating thought and debate amongst practitioners in the field. Dunn’s (2004) article titled “Narrative mediation and workplace conflict dissolution” also provides a valuable source of insight into how narrative can be used for effective conflict mediation.

Mediation within the South African experience: Transformation and Restorative Justice

As a country in transition, South Africa faces the ongoing challenge of how to generate and maintain processes that restore dignity, create political and economic equality, and promote a culture of human rights (Doxtader and Villa-Valencio, 2004). The 1994 elections signalled a crucial turning point in the history of South Africa through the abolishment of race as a means to organise society and thus laid the foundation for political equality (Daniel, Southall and Lutchman, 2005).

The result of this juncture, over a decade later, is that South Africa is a fundamentally improved country. The concept of the ‘developmental state’ has emerged which prioritises the need for facilitated human processes to empower citizens to access and use the goods of democracy to their own benefit (Soal, 2005).

This is evident in government’s commitment to creating a cadre of community development workers at local levels and business’ increasing interest in measuring its value in relation to human well-being and its social role in relation to globalisation (ibid).

There remain, however, extensive social and economic inequalities that require redress. The demands of productivity that call for efficiency and speed to the neglect of human and social well-being sadly predominate. As practitioners in the field of conflict resolution, we are frequently called on to expedite quick and effective ‘solutions’ to problems. We therefore face the challenge of designing mediation processes that will forge effective resolutions to the conflict and drive the transformation agenda.

Restorative justice processes that aim to restore social equity and to transform the fabric of South African society are integral to this endeavour. The potential of conflict mediation to contribute towards transformation is extensive provided it is able to instil social relationships that are based on equality and respect. As such, the creation of a mediation practice that advances social cohesion based on justice, must also tackle the wider context of social and economic conditions that underlie inequality and exclusion (De Feyter, 2005). The integration of narrative within mediation has the capacity to achieve this as it extends the understanding of conflict into social, political and economic realms. This involves the incorporation of wider discourses around culture and power into the mediation process.

This expansive view involves a shift from the traditional interest based approach to mediation that locates conflict within individuals, to a perspective that considers how the experience of conflict is shaped by relationships between individuals. A mediation practice that embraces conflict as a fluid entity that is shaped by relationships within and beyond organisations and communities can easily be infused with restorative justice principles. Just as transition is an ongoing process, so too is restorative justice. It is based on the notion that human beings are constructed through their relationships with others and any attempt to restore justice must therefore take this relational construct into account (Llewellyn, 2004).

The harm that results from violations of social justice is primarily felt at the level of relationships between individuals (Sampson, 1983). The concern of justice from a restorative perspective is therefore to address this harm by restoring equality and dignity amongst these relationships (Llewellyn, 2004).

The objective is not therefore to return relationships to the way they were prior to the conflict, but rather to restore their social equality. The constantly changing nature of relationships makes this a lengthy process which, when seen in the light of a wider attempt to restore social justice, locates it firmly within the country’s overall transformation process (ibid).

Narrative mediation provides a framework for conflict resolution that is able to incorporate transformation according to restorative justice principles. Conflict is not viewed as an event in and of itself, but as part of a complex dispute over entitlement and the allocation of resources. As the paper unfolds it will become evident how narrative mediation actively engages with these power relations.

Narrative mediation: Theoretical Understandings

Mediation presents the opportunity to work through problems that have become obstacles to building what Dunn (2004) refers to as ‘preferred relationships’ and to resolve these problems directly with the other party in respectful ways (ibid). Parties seek mediation because they recognise that they need a third person to facilitate the resolution of their conflict through a safe and contained process.

Mediation also provides an opportunity for parties to consider what they would like their preferred relationship to look like and what needs to be put into place for this to evolve. It remains, however, their process and as mediators we occupy privileged positions as witnesses to the stories people share about their experiences of the conflict. This privilege is accompanied by the responsibility and accountability that we hold as mediators (ibid).

The stories people convey are infused with emotion that both fuel the conflict and reflect the cultural discourses that have informed peoples’ approach to the conflict in the first instance. A dominant cultural discourse is the belief that we need authoritative individuals with professional knowledge to identify and work through the problems that have given rise to the conflict, and to determine which party is right and which party is wrong (ibid). This approach overlooks the social inequalities that have informed the conflict and it prevents parties from actively resolving their difficulties.

Working from Flacks’ (1990) definition of power as the capacity to influence the conditions and terms of everyday life of a community or society, any practice aimed at transformation and empowerment must challenge historical forces and contribute to the future. This active engagement with power relations is incorporated within narrative mediation.

It is informed by narrative therapy practices that take the poststructuralist view that identity is socially constructed and not intrinsic to the individual. This concern with the complex ways in which selves mediate the worlds they inhabit operates from the premise that “one of the primary ways human beings make sense of their experience is by casting it in a narrative form” (Gee, in Mishler, 1986, p. 67). People, as social beings, organise their experiences in terms of stories. Each narrative arranges experience into temporally meaningful episodes which in turn provide a structure for thinking, perception, imagination and moral decision-making (Sarbin, 1986).

This represents a departure from the traditional interest based approach to mediation that is based on the structuralist assumption that identity and human behaviour are derived from within individuals. As such, the goal of mediation is to reach resolution in the context of win/win and this is achieved by separating the process from the content. Mediation typically involves sharing individuals’ accounts of the conflict, brainstorming issues and negotiating agreements (Dunn, 2004).

Narrative mediation reverses the common logic in both popular and academic psychology that derives explanations for events from qualities or circumstances that reside within the person (Winslade and Monk, 2000). It creates valuable distance between the parties and the problem by encouraging people to speak about the conflict as if it were an external object or person exerting an influence on them. Practical ways to elicit these externalising conversations will be explained at a later stage.

Story-telling and Discourses

Dominating discourses are ideas and beliefs that operate as truths, informing our actions in the world (Carey, in Dunn, 2004). They serve as a map against which we understand our own and others’ thought, language, action and interaction (Gee, 1999). As such, discourses are both mental attributes and social practices.

We are all members of a variety of discourses (for example, gender; class; race; family) and we use discourses to explain our behaviour in the world, as well as the behaviour of others (Gee, 1999). Discourses change over time and people alter the way they see themselves in line with changing discourses. When we excuse or justify seemingly inappropriate behaviour, our explications are informed by discourses (Potter and Wetherell, 1987). Peoples’ accounts of the conflict they are experiencing are infused with discourses and the role of the narrative mediator is to create an awareness of how discourses shape these understandings of conflict.

This emphasis on the relational domain frames conflict in terms of a socially constructed contest over entitlement. This entitlement is informed by the meaning given to discourses that operate to privilege the voices of those who are seen to hold the power over those who do not (Dunn, 2004). Conflict when viewed in this light is no longer seen as the outcome of unmet interests or needs.

The question is not about who is right and who is wrong. Rather, it asks how the meanings given to the conflict relate to the shared understanding of what a more preferred relationship would look like (ibid). It is through the telling and linking of meaning between the teller and larger stories of the community to which he/she belongs that this consensus is reached.

By locating story-telling at the heart of mediation, people experience a non-threatening culturally-sensitive environment in which they can share their experiences of the conflict and actively work towards its resolution. Stories are a comfortable medium to work with because people grow up amidst a variety of competing narratives that shape how they see themselves and others in the world. They constantly tell stories about themselves and about others. By acting both out of and into these stories, they shape the direction of the unfolding story-line (Winslade and Monk, 2000).

Emphasis is placed on the understandings that people attribute to their own experiences. By viewing people as experts of their own lives, narrative mediation offers a respectful and non-blaming approach. Problems are seen as separate from people, and it is assumed that people possess the capacities and commitment to work through their own difficulties. It aims to create a relationship between the disputing parties that is based on trust, to develop an understanding of how the past has impacted on the present, and to construct a joint narrative with solutions for the way forward (ibid).

Narrative mediation privileges the person’s own understanding of his/her story over the ‘facts’. The value of the story lies in its telling and interpretation, essentially how the teller understands the impact of the story on his/her life. This emphasis on how the stories create reality means that events can not be understood separately from the dominant narratives that are held by both teller and the listener. It is not the role of the mediator to deduce the ‘truth-value’ of the stories. The pursuit of truth is seen as an irrelevant endeavour and the focus is on how stories construct the world rather than how they exist independently prior to their description.

This incorporation of the complexity of human experience within the practice of mediation has the potential to reach solutions that have long-standing effects. The paper will now move on to consider some implementation techniques.

Story-telling and Mediation: Linking Content and Process

The centrality of story-telling within narrative mediation involves the mediator in a process of assisting people to uncover their numerous understandings of the conflict. The process invariably shapes the content that emerges, and also privileges some content issues over others. This recognition of the connection between content and process negates any notions of neutrality on the part of the mediator.

The mediator co-narrates the stories because his/ her own interpretation of the conflict guides the line of enquiry and thus contributes towards how parties themselves understand the conflict. Redekop (2004) asserts that the mediator cannot step out of the narrative just as a fish cannot step out of water. Instead the mediator must remain conscious of his/ her own narrative, and share it with parties to a dispute in a way which “invites an alignment of narratives, in order to create a new, transformative narrative that they can share” (ibid. p. 1).

Redekop cautions that the mediator must also be careful not to step out of the narrative form to adopt an analytical stance. It is the mediator’s own understanding of peoples’ experiences in terms of narratives that helps parties to realign their narratives in meaningful ways. The mediator must be aware of how his/her own construction of the mediation process, as informed by his/her own beliefs, shapes the conversation and significantly influences the outcome. The kinds of questions that are asked are severely constrained by his/her own cultural location (Winslade and Monk, 2000) The mediator opens the stories of conflict through what is termed ‘expressions of curiosity’. Discursive listening or listening for the discourse enables the mediator to express curiosity in ways that uncover the discourses that have allowed conflict to consume the relationship (Dunn, 2004). These ‘externalising conversations’ involve talking about both the problem-saturated story (how parties describe the conflict) and the preferred story of relationship (the story that contains opportunities for parties to work through the conflict and create a meaningful future). The problem-saturated story frequently frames the opposing partner in a one dimensional, fixed way and is held as the only ‘true’ description of the events of the conflict (Winslade and Monk, 2000). Externalising conversations thus help disputing parties to stop identifying with the problem story and to begin to develop shared meanings, understandings and solutions. Once this shift has occurred the mediator takes a future orientation by assisting the parties to find ways to meet their respective needs or interests in relation to the conflict.

By separating the problem from the people, and asking parties to make a judgement about the effect of the conflict, the space is opened for an understanding in which blame and shame are less significant. The parties begin to co-author a story about the functions of conflict in everyone’s lives and they are invited to work towards a more trusting relationship that will ultimately change the direction of the conflict (ibid).

As a more trusting dialogue emerges, participants begin to hear one another’s story of the problem and its effects, and to reflect on both the position they have taken and the relationship they have with the problem. They begin to identify times of agreement in relation to the problem-saturated story and also moments when the problem has not fully taken over the relationship (Dunn, 2004). These insights help to further articulate the preferred story of relationship that is in harmony with the hopes and objectives of all participants.

The capacity of these ‘externalising conversations’ to decrease the intensity of the conflict is dependent upon the creation of a trusting environment where alternative stories can begin to emerge (Winslade and Monk, 2000). Attentive and respectful listening on behalf of the mediator involves taking stories seriously and redirecting any assumptions about underlying deficiencies in people towards understandings of how the conflict impacts on lives and relationships (ibid). This shifts the conflict into the inter-personal realm.

When people feel hurt from the actions of others, they channel a lot of energy into reworking the conflict story in such a way that reinforces their own feeling of injustice. The mediator uses externalising descriptions to focus parties on the impact of the conflict without becoming overwhelmed by perceived character flaws and blaming. This also allows the mediator to grasp the meaning of their distress without appearing to conspire with one party’s problem-saturated description over the other (ibid).

A more detailed unravelling of how the conflict is experienced by parties involves tracing the accounts to the origin of the conflict. This is based on the notion that people in conflict with one another are likely to have had experiences that were not completely dominated by the history of the conflict. The value of this historical perspective is two-fold. It reveals the pattern of the conflict which in turn helps people to gain clarity about how the conflict is changing and possibly escalating. The mediator is then able to ask about experiences that exist beyond the conflict, thus opening up possibilities for mutual trust (ibid).

Engaging carefully in a conversation about preferred experiences that lie outside the domain of the problem opens up new discursive possibilities. It also allows the mediator to illustrate how dominant cultural discourses can entrap people into particular behaviours that in turn influence the nature and direction of the conflict. For example, power relations that operate to define relationships in the workplace are shaped by wider dominant discourses, as well as discourses that pervade management thinking. Privileged voices are typically based on hierarchy; professional qualifications and length of time with the organization (Dunn, 2004). As people develop a clearer understanding of how dominant cultural messages have affected them and influenced their relationship to the other party, they become less constrained by guilt and self-blame (Winslade and Monk, 2000).

Once one party states clearly that he or she does not want to participate in the escalating conflict, the opportunity arises for a very different conversation to begin. The mediator is then able to ask if there have been any periods when trust was increasing rather than diminishing (ibid). Once parties recognise that a cooperative relationship is necessary to resolve the conflict it becomes possible to begin to co-author an alternative, non-problem-bound narrative that contains the basics upon which to build a resolution.

This deconstruction of the dominant story lines enables parties to map out the territory from which ways out of the conflict can be found. Winslade and Monk explain how the weaving of stories that contain discursive statements that both parties feel comfortable about can also be achieved by widening the conversation to include the voices of other people who have also been effected by the conflict, for example co-workers or children.

The preferred story that emerges must be held by the mediator as parties begin to disengage from totalising descriptions of each other as hurtful and destructive. A key task of the mediator at this point is to create contexts in which parties have opportunities to reflect on their positions. By reflecting on the changes they are making to their relationship, parties support the growth of the alternate story. This re-negotiation of meaning creates a distance in the relationship between parties and the problem. It builds a narrative that no longer fits with the conflict story, thus allowing the co-authorship of the preferred story of relationship (Dunn, 1994).

This new story based on greater understanding must be integrated into participants’ lives. The mediator encourages this integration by asking people to reflect on how they are able to work so well together, and to identify some of the strengths that are emerging and the direction the relationship will take in the future (Winslade and Monk, 2000). Follow-up sessions with parties in which they examine the problem-solving abilities that they have developed provide valuable opportunities to build on the new story and to strengthen the relationship between the parties.

In Summation

Narrative mediation relates to the broad national agenda of transformation and restorative justice in its focus on the ongoing and ever-changing nature of inter-personal relationships. Conflict is not viewed as an end in itself, but is extended beyond the specific encounter to consider implications for peoples’ lives. It considers what work needs to be done after the immediate conflict has been resolved, and what mechanisms (structural and relational) need to be set in place in anticipation of potential conflict in the future.

Personal empowerment is inherent to narrative mediation as it involves participants in joint problem-solving to create a preferred story of relationship that fits with their values, beliefs and commitments. The mediation process raises consciousness and creates organisational and community cultures that are reflective of their conduct (Manganyi, 2004). This represents a more empowering approach to the traditional ‘outsourcing’ one which is premised on the belief that people are unable to sort out their problems for themselves. Dunn (2004) maintains that the ultimate objective of mediation should be to bring people closer to the possibility of sorting out problems for themselves – without the need for a third person.

Narrative mediation is informed by the poststructuralist understanding that identity is socially constructed. The focus on how people make sense of dominant discourses, where they are contested, shows how conflict infiltrates and takes over relationships (ibid). Through the deconstruction of discourses that have informed this sense of entitlement, the impact of the problem or conflict story is revealed and the preferred story begins to emerge. The final test of the success of mediation is the extent to which new understandings are carried into future relationships.

The centrality of story-telling within narrative mediation resonates with wider conflict resolution and transformation initiatives in South Africa. There is abundant evidence of the powerful ways in which story-telling has effectively shifted individuals and communities. Story-telling offers a means to process painful memories and to help people to find the personal strength to confront their experiences, as well as the courage to confront each other’s pain and discomfort (Abdullah, 2003).

When people share their stories, emotions are effectively channelled and trust is encouraged. It is this inter-connectedness that enables people to empathise and feel at one with their fellow humans (ibid). Story-telling also harnesses peoples’ capacity for personal reflection which is integral to bringing about a new history through which to view the present, and upon which to build the future.

Given the distinct differences in South African society, as well as our unique history, it is sometimes necessary to resolve the differences within ourselves before we can resolve our conflicts with others. People frequently hold contradictory positions which present the potential for inter-personal conflict. The process of narrative mediation, through a constant emphasis on unravelling and broadening out peoples’ understandings of the conflict they are engaged in, throws up endless opportunities for the kind of reflection that will deliver this outcome.

Finally, it seems apt to consider the role of the mediator within the context of development practice. Practitioners in the field of conflict are working at the interface of a polarity, where apparent opposites meet, and people are forced to make choices (Soal, 2005). Narrative mediation engages this polarity. It frees the mediator from the domain of imperatives and impartiality and encourages the raising of consciousness on behalf of both mediator and parties.

The capacity of the mediator to hold the paradox of competing discourses of entitlement will determine the extent to which people and communities reflect on their actions and shift their behaviour. It is only when we bring about interventions that are empowering, sustainable and transforming that the real contribution of development practice will be made. Effective conflict mediation requires mediators to actively reflect on their own lives and practice so that they, along with the people they are working with, are engaged in a conscious process of ongoing development.


Abdullah, S. (2004). Community healing: a guide for facilitators. Cape Town: Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

Daniel, J., Southall, R. and Lutchman, J. (2005). Introduction: President Mbeki’s second term: opening the golden door? In D.J. Southall and J. Lutchman (Eds.). State of the Nation: South Africa 2004 – 2005. (pp. xix – xlii). Cape Town: Human Sciences Research Council.

De Feyter, K. (2005). Human rights: social justice in the age of the market. Cape Town: David Philip.

Doxtader, E. and Villa-Valencio, C. (2004). Introduction: Repairing a damaged future. In E. Doxtader and C. Villa-Valencio (Eds.). To repair the irreparable: reparation and reconstruction in South Africa. (pp. xiii – xxii). Cape Town: New Africa Books. Dunn, D. (2004). Narrative mediation and workplace conflict dissolution. 7th National Mediation Conference. Adelaide, Australia.

Flacks, R. (1990). Social bases of activist identity: Comment on Branguart article. Political Psychology, 11 (2), 283-292.

Gee, J.P. (1999). An introduction to discourse analysis: theory and method. London: Routledge.

Llewellyn, J. J. (2004). Doing justice in South Africa: Restorative justice and reparation. In E. Doxtader and C. Villa-Valencio (Eds.). To repair the irreparable: reparation and reconstruction in South Africa. (pp. 166-183). Cape Town: New Africa Books.

Manganyi, C. (2004). Transitions. In C. Manganyi (Ed.). On becoming a democracy. (pp. 3 – 10). Pretoria: University of South Africa Press. Mishler, E. G. (1986). Research interviewing. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Potter, J. & Wetherell, M. (1987). Discourse and social psychology: Beyond attitudes and behaviour. London: Sage.

Redekop, P. (2004). The mediator as narrator: practicing narrative mediation. Proceedings of the Twelfth Annual Symposium on Conflict Resolution. Ottawa: Carleton University.

Sampson, E. E. (1983). Justice and the critique of pure psychology. New York: Plenum.

Sarbin, T. R. (1986). (ed.). Narrative psychology: the storied nature of human conduct. New York: Praeger.

Soal, S. (2005). Centre for Developmental Practice Biennial Practice Conference: An Account. Cape Town: Centre for Development Practice.

Villa-Valencio, C. (2004). A difficult justice: Reparation, Restoration and Rights. In E. Doxtader and C. Villa-Valencio (Eds.). To repair the irreparable: reparation and reconstruction in South Africa. (pp. 66-87). Cape Town: New Africa Books.

Winslade, J. and Monk, G. (2000). Narrative mediation: a new approach to conflict resolution. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.


Linda Price

Dr. Linda Price  B.A. (Wits) B.A. Hons (KZN) M.Soc.Sci (KZN) Phd. (UCT) Linda Price is an organisational psychologist registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa and the Psychological Society of South Africa. Linda has held academic positions in Organisational Psychology at University of Kwazulu Natal (1993-1994) and University… MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


Effective Strategies For Growing Your Collaborative Law And Mediation Practice

Are we starting to see a turnaround in the economy? Recent reports are showing increased optimism about the economy than they were even three months ago. What does this mean...

By Elizabeth Ferris

Non-Apology Apologies

From the Indisputably blogThe law generally doesn’t do much to promote apologies.  They aren’t included in the panoply of remedies that judges can impose on unwilling parties.  Even if courts...

By John Lande

Study Captures Nurses Experiences With Disruptive Behavior

From the Disputing Blog of Karl Bayer, Victoria VanBuren, and Holly Hayes.The Journal of Nursing Care Quality published this month the results of a qualitative study titled “Hospital RNs’ Experiences...

By Holly Hayes