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Parallels of Mediation & Theater

What does theater have to do with mediation, you ask? Well, many skills learned in the study of theater also highlight important mediation skills and concepts. Interestingly, parallels can be drawn between the work of a mediator and that of a playwright, actor, director, and set designer. Listed below are several mediation concepts and their theatrical counterparts.

I. Parallels in Conversation Analysis

Conversation Analysis in Facilitative Mediation

In the book Difficult Conversations, Stone et al. explain that we have multiple conversations going on underneath our surface conversations. The authors state that “the words reveal only the surface of what is really going on. To make the structure of a difficult conversation visible, we need to understand not only what is said, but also what is not said. We need to understand what the people involved are thinking and feeling but not saying to each other.” (Stone, et al., p. 5). The authors continue to explain that these underlying conversations break down into the following three parts: stories about what happened, what each party is feeling, and what aspect of each party’s identity has been impacted. (Stone, et al., pp. 7-8).

As a mediator, one must listen for the three conversations and employ techniques that bring the underlying conversations to the surface. This allows the parties to see what exactly is going on in their dispute. According to Menkel-Meadow et al. in Mediation: Practice, Policy, and Ethics, if the parties do not share a similar understanding of the facts, “information asymmetry” will hinder parties’ attempts at resolution because each party will be working with different information. (Menkel-Meadow et al., p. 75). Once enlightened by a shared understanding of the situation, it becomes much easier for the parties to resolve the matter that led to the dispute.

Two techniques that mediators use to bolster understanding during mediation are reflecting and reframing. Reflecting means that the mediator restates the essence of what the party has said to ensure that everyone understands each other, and reframing allows the mediator to translate the parties’ statements into new ideas that re-characterize the conflict. Thus, to bring to light the three underlying conversations, a mediator would reflect back the parties’ feelings, identity, and perspectives on what happened. The mediator would also reframe polarizing comments into neutral language as needed. The overarching idea from Difficult Conversations is to arrive at a “Third Story” that reflects the dispute from a neutral point of view and creates common ground from which a solution may be crafted. (Stone, et al., pp.149-150).

Solutions are usually crafted by finding out which interests the parties have in common. In Getting Past No, author William Ury explains that people often stick to their “positions” without budging, even though the real concern should be about satisfying one’s underlying “interests.” (Ury, p. 76). On the surface, disputants use words to argue for positions, but underneath this layer are the three conversations and the interests that drive them. Interests, according to Mediation: Practice, Policy, and Ethics, can be defined as “the underlying and inescapable human motivators that press us into action.” (Menkel-Meadow et al., p. 228). Mediators utilize the reframing technique to direct a party away from a position and towards an underlying interest and then use the parties’ shared interests to create solutions.         

Conversation Analysis in Theater

Since mediation is concerned with resolving conflict, and theater thrives upon dramatic interludes, both are simply different sides of the same coin. To understand conflict resolution is to understand conflict creation and vice versa. In theater, conflict stems from the dramatic dialogue of the playwright’s script. The playwright carefully crafts each word to make up the “surface conversations” that a mediator would hear as the parties discuss a dispute. The writer must develop each character’s perspective towards the issues in the play, just as each party would enter mediation with a differing perspective on the issues in dispute. It is then up to the theatrical audience, as it would be to the mediator, to recognize what the neutral “third story” is.

Watching characters struggle with “information asymmetry” is often what makes a dramatic work most entertaining for the audience. It can be either heartbreaking or humorous to see that a certain character is operating under an incorrect assumption or unfortunate misperception. (Alas, if only Romeo and Juliet could have been better informed!) The audience must watch from their seats, unable to intervene with the one piece of information that could unravel the twisted scene before them. Fortunately, mediators use tools such as reflecting and reframing to help parties see their situations more clearly.

The work of an actor and the work of a mediator both begin by taking in the surface dialogue of characters or parties in conflict. But both actor and mediator must also dig deeper to understand what is going on beneath the surface conversation. In mediation, this includes listening for the “three conversations” and searching for “underlying interests.” In acting, this includes creating or understanding the “subtext” of conversations and determining a character’s “objectives” and “motivations.” According to Alex Golson in Acting Essentials, subtext is defined as “the thoughts you have as you are speaking a line” and objectives are “[t]he final desired outcome of an action.” (Golson, p. 65, 60). As Acting Essentials notes, “[i]n a dramatic situation, subtext is directly related to a character’s wants and needs” and “[i]t is very important to know the motivation for any action.” (Golson, p. 65, 60).

So a party in dispute would have a position and underlying interests, and an actor playing a character would have an objective and underlying motivations. A mediator would hope to highlight the “Three Conversations” from Difficult Conversations that deal with what happened, what the party is feeling, and what identity of the party is affected. (Stone et al., p. 7-8). Further, a director would hope to see a similar amount of subtext or “inner monologue” being created by the actor to make the characterization realistic. (Golson, p. 65). The realistic portrayal of subtext is what separates poor acting from a mesmerizing performance. The actor must think the thoughts of the character, keeping in mind the character’s perspective, feelings, and identity to be believable in the role. As is noted in Difficult Conversations, people in dispute are “distracted by all that’s going on inside.” (Stone, p. 7).

II. Other Parallel Concepts

Mediators and theater professionals must learn how to analyze conversation and its many layers, but this is not the only skill they have in common. For instance, both actors and mediators utilize active listening and improvisational skills. Directors and mediators share facilitative skills and are concerned with the self determinativeness of their processes. Furthermore, set designers and mediators share some of the same room staging concerns.


First, actors and mediators must be active listeners. In Acting Essentials, Golson explains that acting is just as much about reacting to what is given to you as it is creating action; “[i]n order to be able to react, you must actively listen and watch what is happening to you and what is going on around you.” (Golson, p. 27). An actor must listen carefully to how the other actors present their lines and also work to understand what is going on with the other characters. When an actor does not listen carefully, it is like saying lines in a vacuum, and the scene becomes unbelievable. To create reality, an actor must include understanding of the line given him when he says his line back.

In mediation, the mediator also uses active listening to demonstrate understanding of what a party has said. Much the same as the concept of “reflecting” discussed above, “[i]t is the process of picking up clients’ messages and sending them back in reflective statements that mirror what you have heard.” (Menkel-Meadow et al., pp.168-69). Mediators must listen to what a party tells them and then respond with a statement that shows understanding of the content and emotions that are present. (Menkel-Meadow et al., p.169). Just as an actor sends back lines that demonstrate an understanding of a certain character, a mediator reflects back statements that demonstrate an understanding of a particular party.


Second, “[i]mprovisation, or working without a written script” is something that mediators do during mediation and actors do when performing improvisational theater. (Golson, p. 48). Both arenas call the participants to think on their feet and be spontaneous. In mediation, like live theater, there is no pause or rewind button. The mediator has to keep up with the parties and be ready to intervene when he or she sees fit. In an improvisational scenario, an actor must react to what he or she is given and trust that it will be right in that moment. Mediators and improvisational actors need to make choices on the fly and should have the confidence to do so. If a mediator or actor wants a conversation to go in a different direction, they must believe that they can create change with their next statement.

Self- Determinativeness

Third, both directors and mediators must respect the self-determinativeness within their respective processes. The best directors do not use the rehearsal process to force actors into submission. Instead, they encourage actors to make their own choices concerning the way they perform their characters. This way, the actions seem natural and truthful because they were inspired from within the actor. Notes on Directing by Hauser and Reich promotes this concept, stating that directors should “[p]rompt [actors] to understand and accept their own sense of what is right. Hearing a director ask, ‘What do you think works here?’ or ‘How would you solve this?’ is supportive, stimulating, and flattering to any good actor.” (Hauser & Reich, p. 45). As this quote demonstrates, directors wish actors to determine for themselves what works for them as they perform a role.

Facilitative mediators also want parties in dispute to fashion a solution to their problems by working amongst themselves. The ability to retain control over the final outcome of a dispute and the shape of the dispute resolution process is what makes mediation self-determinative. (Menkel-Meadow, et al., 94). Just as directors let actors make decisions regarding their character choices, “mediation offers parties the possibility of acceptable conclusions, ones they have crafted themselves.” (Menkel-Meadow, et al., 93). Both acting and mediation recognize the importance of solutions that come from within a particular individual. Unlike some directors or judges, actors and parties in dispute know the issues at hand quite intimately. Therefore, actors and parties are best equipped to create innovative, enduring solutions to their issues.


Additionally, designers and mediators share some of the same concerns in regards to staging. According to Michael Bloom in Thinking Like a Director, “words and setting together create certain chemical reactions, [so the] director and designers must consider how action and language will resonate in different environments and theater configurations.” (Bloom, p. 85). Designers learn that different factors, such as color, style, lighting, and areas of the stage used all affect the audience’s perception of a show and its characters. As Bloom explains, poetry lends itself to fantastical settings, and comedy is supported by visually uplifting sets. (Bloom, p. 85).  Everything the audience members perceive can influence their mood, feelings, and understanding of the play. Without a thoughtful design, a production is likely to fall flat.

Similarly, mediation sessions are also influenced by the settings in which they take place. Just as a director would design a set that enhances a show’s story telling capability, a mediator should create a space where the parties feel comfortable sharing their stories. According to Mediation: Practice, Policy, and Ethics, “[i]n determining how to choose and arrange a room for mediation, key mediation goals must be kept in mind: to enhance communication between the parties…to support mediator neutrality, and to set a stage or create an atmosphere that is conducive to creativity and to inspiration.” (Menkel-Meadow et al., 222). Overall, both actors and parties in dispute should be able to draw creative energy from the space around them.            

III. A Parallel Benefit

Furthermore, mediation and theater share a common benefit. At their core, both have the potential for transformative effects. Parties in dispute or a group of audience members can be taken from chaos to harmony, weakness to strength, or from ignorance to understanding. Parties in dispute go through these shifts personally, whereas audience members experience the shifts through a surrogate relationship with the characters on stage.

In the theater, this concept is called catharsis. According to Jean Benedetti in The Art of the Actor, an audience’s experience of catharsis is “a kind of emotional discharge…a kind of cure, a process that produces greater awareness and understanding.” (Benedetti, p. 195). For example, young women who see a play with strong female characters could be empowered to find and exude greater strength in their own lives. Or, seeing a play where the characters are much different from ourselves could help us recognize what other people’s perspectives are and why they are that way.

In transformative mediation, the mediator helps the parties make empowerment and recognition shifts. As Menkel-Meadow et al. state, “[t]o understand a situation or solve a problem, it is helpful to have the parties both strong individually (‘empowered’) and responsive to each other (‘recognition’).” (Menkel-Meadow et al., p. 123). In this type of mediation, the goal is not necessarily to find a solution to the parties’ problems; it is enough to have a party achieve greater understanding of his or her needs and to attempt to understand the other party’s needs. (Menkel-Meadow et al., p. 252). Thus, both theater and mediation enable their participants to experience transformative effects, whether it is through catharsis or through shifts in empowerment or recognition.               


To conclude, mediation and theater have many parallels. Mediators and playwrights must consider how differing perspectives and information asymmetry contribute to disputes. Both mediators and actors must learn how to analyze layers of conversation, utilize active listening skills, and trust themselves to improvise. Facilitative mediators champion self determinativeness, as do directors. Set designers take into account the effect one’s surrounding and positioning can have, as should mediators. Transformation mediation even shares a common benefit with theater: the possibility of having a cathartic experience and achieving personal growth through conflict.


Valerie Brunnette

Minnesota native Valerie R. Brunnette received a B.A. in Theater and a B.A. in Communication Studies from the University of St. Thomas as well as a J.D. from William Mitchell College of Law. Valerie is a Rule 114 Qualified Neutral listed on the civil facilitative and family facilitative rosters. Her… MORE >

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