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The Future of Mediation: Mediators As Problem Finders, Makers, and Designers

In 1964 two University of Chicago social scientists conducted an experiment at the Art Institute of Chicago. They invited a group of students to select from among random objects set up on tables, and then draw a still life.

Some of the students examined just a few items, selected the ones that interested them, and got right down to drawing. Other students handled more of the objects, turning them over many times before selecting the ones that interested them. They rearranged their chosen objects several times and took longer to complete the assigned still life.

The social scientists, Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (renowned for his work on the state of flow) asked a panel of art experts to evaluate the resulting works. Without knowing anything about the source of the drawings, the art experts judged the work of that second group of students as far more creative than the first. What’s more, in follow-ups about five years and 18 years after the initial study, the students in the second group were more likely to remain artists and have had success in the art world.

What differentiated the first group from the second? Csikszentmihalyi characterized the first group of students as problem solvers who were asking themselves, “How can I produce a good drawing?” He characterized the second group as problem finders who were asking themselves, “What good drawing can I produce?”

I am drawn to this research story as a relevant lens through which to ponder the future of mediation because it speaks to my interest in the continuous re-examination and reframing of the ways we think about and carry out our work. Much like the way sports sunglasses with interchangeable lenses help us see with greater clarity in varying light conditions, non-traditional lenses through which we look at our work help us notice new things.

Why is this important? When we consider our work through unfamiliar lenses, we push ourselves out of our comfort zones and out of familiar patterns that feel safe and reliable. When we do that, we give ourselves a fighting chance to avoid mustiness in an evolving world. When we consider our work via surprising metaphors, we spark our own creativity. When we look through lenses we haven’t looked through before, we can’t help but ponder our own relevance.

It is in this spirit that I offer three lenses through which we might view the future of mediation.

Mediators As Problem Finders

We are a field of problem solvers. Yet, if Csikszentmihalyi’s and Getzels’ ideas have anything to teach us, our abilities as problem finders enhance our problem solving and, therefore, help us better serve our clients.

When we focus primarily on problem solving, our effort will naturally tend to revolve around pinpointing, even driving hard toward, solutions. Along with our endgame focus may come the tendency to hurry past parts of the conflict that don’t seem, on the surface, to support our goal. For example, we may become particularly frustrated with impasse and “difficult personality types” because we want to get around the things that seem to bog us down. We view the likes of impasse and “difficult people” as obstacles to getting things done.

But when we expand our focus to include problem finding, the landscape shifts. Problem finding is a necessary precursor to the very best problem solving because, as Getzels said, “The quality of the problem that is found is a forerunner of the quality of the solution that is attained, and finding the productive problem may be no less an intellectual achievement than attaining the productive solution.”

Einstein put it this way: “The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old questions from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.” When we focus at least equally on problem finding, we begin to view impasse and “difficult people” not as obstacles, but as new angles on the problem. They shift from being hindrances to being catalysts.

Let us be a field of problem finders like that second group of art students.

Mediators As Makers

Makers are people who make things. The Maker Movement has gained enough momentum that it’s visible even in my small New Hampshire town, where a makerspace will open its doors soon. Makerspaces are studios where people who make things come together to jointly share equipment, pool knowledge, tinker, and create together, often across professional lines (think computer geeks hanging out with artisans and machinists with calligraphers). They are the think tanks of the non-elites.

What would happen to mediation if we began to play with ideas in cross-disciplinary groups, not as a one-time activity, but regularly, in our own version of makerspaces? How might we begin to think about and carry out our work differently if we made it practice to contemplate the nature of problem finding and solving with colleagues from other professions such as medicine, physics, architecture, and silversmithing? What would it look like when we began to tinker and cross-fertilize, to invent and prototype together?

One of the original motivations behind the Maker Movement was desire to help people move from being passive users of merchandise to active creators of the things they use in their lives. What could happen to the development of our field if we sought ways to help our clients think of mediation not as the passive consumption of a process that is “done to” them, but instead as active creators of their lives? At the very least, such a reframe would force us to take a hard look at the way we promote mediation to the public. And it could very possibly fundamentally change the way we define our value and the way we work.

Let us be a field of makers.

The Mediator As User Interface Designer

User interface design (UID) places the user’s experience at the center of app, website, and computer development. User-centered design is about simplifying the user’s interaction, influencing how the user performs their desired tasks, and creating an aesthetically appealing design. The best UI designers find a magical balance between visual elements and technical functionality.

Apples’ Steve Jobs was famous for his insistence on elegant UI design and the products developed under his leadership forever changed the computing and mobile communication world. German industrial designer Dieter Rams once said, “Good design is as little design as possible” because it concentrates on essentials and unburdens products from non-essential features. Facebook’s chief design director, Julie Zhuo, says, “Any new interface requires effort—effort to learn, to open up, to navigate through. While that effort is necessary in many cases, when an app or service comes along that fulfills the magic of ‘it just works’—well, then that is a beautiful thing indeed.” She calls it “invisible design.”

The characteristics of great UID offer a compelling challenge to the mediator as UI designer. How would we design our work differently if we place our clients at the absolute center of our design instead of our courts, our community mediation programs, our office systems, or ourselves? How would we mediate differently if we required our best work to be “invisible design” and challenged ourselves to be unobtrusive in the conflict we’re helping clients navigate?

The constraints that fed the processes we use in our mediations—regardless of what “school” or “style” of mediation we value most—may well be quite different from the constraints of excellent user interface design. It would be remiss just to toss out our processes, of course, because some of those original constraints likely have merit even today. Yet, allowing ourselves to practice statically, using approaches that are sometimes not user-centered at all, may well be feeding the public’s general disinterest in what we do.

Let us be a field of user-centered designers.

The potential lenses through which we consider the future of our work are in endless supply. The ones above happen to be the ones on my own mind right now, the ones informing my own work. This will shift as time goes on.

So perhaps my greatest hope for the future of mediation is that we deliberately seek out unexpected lenses, look through them with curiosity, and try to be open to what they allow us to see.


Getzels, J.W. (1979). Problem finding: A theoretical note. Cognitive Science 3(9), 167-172.

Getzels. J.W., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1976). The creative vision: A longitudinal study of problem finding in art. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Rosenfield, K. (2012). Dieter Rams’ 10 principles of “good design.” Retrieved from“good-design”/.

Zhuo, J. (2013). Invisible design. Retrieved from


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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