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Ten Years After The Promise of Mediation: A Report From The First National Conference on Transformative Mediation

Bush and Folger’s The Promise of Mediation was published in 1994, and to mark the 10-year anniversary of this influential book, the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation (ISCT) sponsored the First National Conference on Transformative Mediation on November 7 and 8 in Philadelphia. Over 300 people from throughout the United States and several foreign countries came to share their insights and learn from those who developed the transformative orientation, on the theme of “Looking Back, Looking Forward: Transformative Practice Ten Years after The Promise of Mediation.” The event also marked the publication of the second, revised edition of The Promise. There was one day of pre-conference workshops followed by the two days of the conference with presentations and interactive sessions all focused on the overall theme of the past, present, and future of the transformative orientation..

I participated in the conference and would like to comment on some of the themes that seemed to emerge regarding the transformative “movement” and, to some extent, ISCT, which has been helping shape that movement. Being the social constructionist that I am, I acknowledge that these themes are my own reality and created in part out of my background as a psychologist, academic, and ISCT fellow. So, with that caution in mind, here are some of the major themes that surfaced for me.

Transformative mediation has come a long way in the last decade, but those developments have not been thoroughly documented.

The term “transformative mediation” was hardly in anyone’s vocabulary 10 years ago and today it is considered to be a major movement within the mediation field. Major corporations and agencies have adopted the model—United States Postal Service, Raytheon, Transportation Security Administration—and research has convincingly shown its effectiveness. The theoretical clarity of the model has prompted the mediation field to examine basic theoretical premises, leading to more thoughtful examination of the purposes behind prescribed mediation practices. The entire concept of mediator assessment and certification is being re-thought thanks in part to the insight from transformative mediation that mediation is not a unitary practice.

The second edition of The Promise helps document some of these developments and acknowledges the contributions of the many people who have advanced the model. Yet some of the story remains untold. The remarkable expansion of the transformative model in community mediation centers is known, yet the account of why and how this happened has not been expressed. In a related vein, more could be written about how the model was adopted by the USPS, Raytheon, and TSA.

And, importantly, although the essentials of the orientation remain the same, the model has been elaborated in the last decade. There is much new material on, for example, what weakness and self-absorption look like; the essential skills of a transformative mediator; the major “strategies” of competent transformative practice; and transformative mediator assessment, both for formative and summative purposes, using video tapes and in a live-action setting. Documentation of some of these developments has been written and is broadly available, but some is written only in revised manual pages or otherwise relatively inaccessible to practicing mediators. This brings me to my second observation.

Developments in the model should be made more accessible to practicing mediators.

At the conference I saw great interest in the new developments in the model, especially those relating to practice. Some of these ideas are in published form, either from ISCT, such as Designing Mediation; in conflict journals, such as Conflict Resolution Quarterly or Negotiation Journal; or in law journals, such as Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal or Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution. But it is becoming clear to me that these developments need to be more accessible to people whose day-to-day practice is mediation.

I mean “accessible” in two ways. First, the publication outlets should be more readily available to practicing mediators. Most people don’t have law journals or conflict journals on their coffee tables. Maybe ISCT should think about organizing a practitioner-oriented newsletter (print or email) or website. Second, whatever is written for these outlets should have the practitioner audience in mind. The documentation and theoretical/conceptual background necessary for an academic audience may not be helpful for practitioners.

The model is being applied to settings other than mediation.

An examination of the conference agenda reveals, first, that the transformative orientation is practiced in a number of different mediation contexts—e.g., divorce, police/community relations, workplace, elder mediation, child permanency, and schools. It is also evident that the model is being applied more broadly. For example, in facilitating large group dialogue. Also, the relational worldview, upon which the transformative orientation is based, is being applied by consultants working with entities (such as schools, corporations, and prisons) that are considering in a systemic way how they handle conflict. Further, the relational worldview is being applied to the development of training programs to help individuals have more productive conflict interactions with each other, without the presence of a mediator. Thus, there is recent interest in “conflict communication” training. This application of the orientation to other settings is an exciting trend and it will be important for those involved both to explicitly link their practice to the premises of the orientation and to share their insights with others.

More research is needed.

The growth and development of the orientation are the direct result of research and, in order for the development to continue, more research is needed. This is especially true now that there is so much interest in the model and more and more people are interested in being associated with the term “transformative.” The Postal Service deserves praise for its foresight in researching issues associated with the REDRESS program. Lisa Bingham and her colleagues at the University of Indiana are to be congratulated on their excellent work. Other research conducted by Joseph Folger, and myself include a qualitative study for REDRESS and a benchmarking study of family, civil and citizen mediation programs in Florida. And there is much additional research that could/should be done. I’ll just briefly mention three ideas.

1. Document the use of the model, in what contexts and how it is being received. We know that there is increasing interest in the orientation—in community mediation centers, in court-connected programs, in divorce mediation, in the workplace—but we do not have documentation on the extent of its use. Neither do we know how the various stakeholders—parties, agency/organization officials, mediators, funders—perceive the success (however defined) of the mediation programs.

2. Document transformative effects, both in the mediation room and afterwards. The USPS researchers have been gathering data from post-mediation surveys given to participants and this has been informative. Much additional research could be done on studying what happens in the mediation room (not just retrospectively) and how the mediation experience influences interactions at home and work after the mediation.

3. Examine the effectiveness of different training methods that are used to teach transformative mediation. Training the transformative model typically involves teaching people how the premises of the orientation apply in the moment-by-moment events of a mediation session. Research is important to investigate the best ways to teach the theory, the various mediator moves, and how the theory applies to mediator behavior in the parties’ interactions. These “best” ways may be different for different learners.

Should ISCT consider transformative mediation trainer certification?

For many reasons, discussed elsewhere, ISCT decided to develop a transformative mediator certification process. One of the developments in the field is that many organizations are offering training in transformative mediation. There is “good” and “bad” news in this development. It is encouraging because it demonstrates the expanding interest in the orientation. The downside is that some of the training misrepresents the model, and trainees are misled into believing their practice is in alignment with the model. One possible solution would be for ISCT to develop a process for certifying trainers so that potential training participants would know that the training they receive would be led by trainers who truly understand the model. I am certain that there are implications of this idea that have not occurred to me, but it may be an idea worth further discussion.

ISCT needs to consider new ways to support the growth of interest in transformative mediation/processes.

I sensed eagerness by participants at the conference to learn as much as possible about transformative practice and to be a part of ISCT, or at least the “transformative movement.” The major purpose of ISCT is to serve as a “think tank” to provide resources for the field, bringing together theory, research, and practice. As presently constituted, ISCT is a virtual organization of 30-40 fellows and associates who have a strong commitment to the relational worldview and the premises underlying transformative practice. ISCT has very limited infrastructure and almost everyone associated with it is employed full time for another agency or organization or as private practitioners and consultants. So the question becomes how ISCT, with its relatively limited resources, can encourage and support this amazing growth of interest. It seems like a natural task for ISCT because the developers of the transformative model are its founders and leaders.

One of the suggestions that emerged at the conference was for ISCT to begin a member organization.

It would help people to stay connected with each other and with developments in the field. Members might receive a regular newsletter (paper, email, or web-based) that could include “success” stories from the field, articles about new developments, and insights about different aspects of the orientation. Perhaps such a membership organization could offer mediator liability insurance. There are many issues that would need to be considered and, as is commonly said, “the devil is in the details,” but it seems to me that the idea is worth exploring.

In sum, for me the conference was both a celebration of the tremendous accomplishments of the last decade (thanks especially to Baruch Bush and Joe Folger for leading the way) and a launching of the next 10 years of work. We need to be intentional about the directions we go, but we don’t have the luxury of being overly cautious or plodding in our steps. ISCT can form a partnership with people interested in the model and, if the energy evident at the conference is any indication, that partnership will exert an enormous positive influence on the field for years to come.


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