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Social Networking Ain’t Transformative Mediation

Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation by Dan Simon

“My God, you are an idiot! Those people [who share your political perspective] are vile and despicable and should be ashamed of themselves!” That’s an actual quote from a Facebook conversation I participated in last week. Despite the easy access social media gives us to each other, the communication doesn’t seem to be moving us toward greater understanding. Why is that, considering that Facebook and Twitter conversations share some things in common with transformative mediation sessions? In both situations, the participants are free to choose whether they speak, what they say, when they say it and how they say it. There’s no one with judicial authority involved; and there’s no third party who sees it as their job to move the conversation toward agreement. So why do transformative mediations usually work out so much better than internet conversations?

It turns out that the presence of someone who is committed to and skilled at being supportive of all participants makes a big difference. Imagine a transformative mediator helping with the above conversation (assuming they were invited to do so by all the participants). The transformative mediator, when appropriate, would reflect what a party said, “so Dan is an idiot, and that whole group are vile, despicable and should be ashamed.” That intervention alone could have a big impact on the speaker. Just hearing, from another human being, exactly what you’ve just said, tends to lead to progress in your thinking. One possible direction might be that the speaker says, “yes, well, Dan is sure talking like an idiot,” Already, progress. The speaker has shifted to suggesting that I might not be a full-time idiot, but that I might be just very mistaken about this issue. A series of shifts along those lines and we could wind up having an intelligent policy discussion where we both learn something, including that neither of us is all that bad a person.

The presence of the transformative mediator usually allows everyone to think more clearly about the precise point they want to make. When they hear themselves reflected, they make progress in their own thinking. When they hear the other person reflected, they’re able to listen again while feeling less threatened and defensive, but while also facing up to the reality of what the other party said. The mediator’s ability to remain non-judgmental of both the other party and of oneself suggests that it’s possible for both sides to be tolerated.

So is it possible to apply the practices of the transformative mediator in one’s own online discussions? Not exactly. Taking the role of mediator when one is also a party just doesn’t work. But somehow, the above internet conversation ended with the following exchange:
“I truly enjoyed our talk…It is very nice talking to someone that doesn’t cuss at you, try and tell you that you are a racist, etc…..Feel free to jump in at any time that you might see a post of mine on here…..Good luck, stay safe….”
“Likewise, Brother.”

So maybe there’s hope?


Dan Simon

Dan is a leader in the field of transformative mediation. He is the author of the chapter on divorce mediation in the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation's ("ISCT") TRANSFORMATIVE MEDIATION SOURCEBOOK. He is a Past Chair of the Minnesota State Bar Association's Alternative Dispute Resolution Section. He served… MORE >

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