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Three Propositions on Mediation

With apologies to Ray Smith’s short essay, “Werner Who?” in John Metcalf and J.R. (Tim) Struthers, eds. How Stories Mean (Erin, Ontario: The Porcupine’s Quill, 1993).

In one way or another, most of us seek praxis (theory into action) in mediation. But, do we all dance to the merry tune of “The Reflective Practitioner” because we are such, or for fear of being creativity wallflowers? [1] Most times I am not sure.

Although mediation has been called “A Practice in Search of a Theory”[2] [2], much has changed over the last ten years. We are now blessed, or otherwise endowed, with a massive volume of theory and practice literature on mediation. I am tempted to say “critical mass” but maybe it is not.

We lack a cohesive overall viewpoint. Is our theory anxious and arbitrary or secure and multifaceted? How do we know? Is mediation theory “fuzzy” from a philosophical perspective? Is the real problem that “mediation” is an umbrella term under which many different processes shelter? Is there a crisis in conflict resolution as suggested by Bernie Mayer?[3] I think there is, and a dialogue is badly needed, if we are to meet the needs of our clients.

On a practical level, how do we reach the level of “artistry” proposed by Lang and Taylor in their excellent work, The Making of a Mediator”?[4]

I have studied and read lots of interesting theory (and lots that is not very interesting), but how much of that was of any real use to me in my practice? Fortunately many writers on mediation cross the line (is there a line?) from practitioner to theorist, and back again, with little effort.

Have I have absorbed a theoretical framework for what I do without being fully aware of it? If so, is learning by osmosis part of the science or the art? Am I unconsciously competent where my skills have becomes so practiced that they have becomes second nature to me? Or am I unconsciously incompetent and not aware of my particular deficiencies? Do we only respond to the need for professional development when we are aware of our own need for it, and the personal (emotional, financial or otherwise) benefit we will derive from achieving it?

We must expand our horizons. We need permission to reach out of our professional skins and realize that there is no defined boundary. Reaching into another discipline, that of literary criticism, I would like to put forward the following propositions on mediation for comment:

1) Mediation is an activity therefore it is the doing of it that matters to a mediator.

2) A mediator is someone engaged in the activity of mediation, not in research, thinking, planning, talk-showing or award-receiving. But why can’t we do more than “just” mediate?

3) All mediator’s questions about a specific technique or model of mediation can only be answered through the act of mediating. A mediator needs practical answers to such questions as ‘Will it work?’ or ‘Can I manage it”. Theoretical answers are practically meaningless or are they?

I am not trying to revise the dominant narrative or define a pedagogical model in this. Whether or not these propositions are correct or not is open to discussion, but they provide a simple model for a critical approach to the everyday “doing” of mediation.

End Notes

1 Donald A. Schon, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, (New York: Basic Books, 1983).

Specifically in reference to divorce mediation see Lenard Marlow, Divorce Mediation: A Practice in Search of a Theory (Garden City: Harlan Press, 1997).

Bernard S. Mayer, Beyond Neutrality: Confronting the Crisis in Conflict Resolution (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004)

4 Michael D. Lang and Alison Taylor, The Making of a Mediator: Developing Artistry in Practice (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000)


Colm Brannigan

Colm Brannigan is mediator and arbitrator in the Toronto area. He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, holds an LL.M. in ADR, and is a Chartered Mediator and a Chartered Arbitrator through the ADR Institute of Canada (ADRIC). An acknowledged Canadian expert in the development of online… MORE >

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