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Tough Questions About Human Nature and the Purple House

Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation

Baruch Bush and Joe Folger conducted a training in May called “Responding Effectively to Workplace and Family Conflicts”. This workshop focused on how we might best manage our own conflicts, taking into consideration the transformative framework. A participant in that course posed the following questions afterward.

I did my best to answer them consistently with the transformative framework. And I also added some thoughts about how the questions apply to transformative mediation.

Question 1: You mentioned that (wrongly) demonizing another is making that person less human / an inhuman monster. What kind of labeling, if any, would make someone too human? Under the transformative model, is it possible / does it even make sense for a person to be “too human”?

Answer 1: I’d say “too human” probably doesn’t make sense for a transformative mediator. We assume humans are human, regardless of their behavior. And we know that both extremely destructive and extremely constructive behavior seem to arise from humans. On the other hand, as a party to conflict, we have more personal decisions to make about how to deal with the other party. So as your question implies, our goal as a party is probably to make good choices about how much we can trust the other party. And as you suggest, it might be a mistake to assume that a specific person is kinder or more trustworthy than they’re actually likely to be toward us.

Question 2: In rare cases, a person’s behavior towards others is truly monstrous / demonic (despots, Hitler, psychopaths, etc.). Would you deem these types of people as (actually) less than human? (If so, then I guess the transformative model does not / cannot apply to them.) To what extent is someone’s identity defined by their behaviors?

Answer 2: It might be a wise choice for a party to a conflict to acknowledge that the other party is a danger to them. In extreme cases, one party might wisely decide to kill a person for the sake of saving others (or not, depending on their values). We still prefer not to deny that that dangerous person is a person. Since destruction, violence, and intentional infliction of pain between humans seem to be undeniable parts of the human condition, we prefer to acknowledge that they are part of the human condition.

So when we decide how to deal with our conflict with this person, the same question as ever arises: “How do we balance care of ourself with care of the (in this case extremely challenging) other person?” If we’re dealing with someone who seems as difficult as you describe, that balance may lean heavily toward caring for ourselves and not leave much room at all for caring for the other.

To apply this question to transformative mediation, it would not be a mediator’s role to decide who should be treated as beyond redemption. Our role as transformative mediators is to support parties in coming to their own best decisions about how to deal with each other. This is one reason that we support parties’ choices about everything, including whether to participate in mediation. If they are clear that the other party is dangerous and beyond redemption, and that it will only be harmful to participate in a conversation with them, we support the choice not to. Or if they choose to participate in a conversation with the monstrous person for the purpose of gaining information about how to protect themselves later from them, we also support that conversation. Or more commonly, we support conversations where one or both parties believe the other is a monster, but they nonetheless have a little hope that there’s a bit of humanity in there somewhere. Unless we decide that we ourselves are at risk, or that the risk of violence erupting between the parties is too great, we support the conversations that parties want to have, and we never have to evaluate anyone’s level of monstrosity. This policy of the mediator to support any conversation that parties want to have seems especially reasonable in view of stories of reconciliation between murderers and their victims’ parents in restorative justice programs, and considering successful parts of the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa.

Question 3: What should / can the transformative mediator do when one person wants to talk about something but the other doesn’t? Do the wishes of the denier trump the other party’s?

Answer 3: This situation arises often in my mediations. Neither party’s preference trumps the other’s. One party can say “I’ll only continue this discussion if we discuss X” – and the other party can say “I’ll only continue this discussion if we do not discuss X”. Both parties essentially have “veto” power over how the conversation proceeds. As the mediator I support the conversation, in this case perhaps about what topics will be discussed, for as long as the parties want me to. At a moment when the parties aren’t engaged in their own conversation, I often say things like, “So as for whether or not you’re going to discuss X, Albert, you’re saying you insist on it; and Betty you’re saying you refuse to. . . So how would you like to proceed?” And the conversation continues, usually with this question being worked out by the parties.

Question 4: In The Purple House video [a training video in which Baruch Bush mediates and then analyzes the mediation (the video is available here – a transcript of it appears in The Promise of Mediation: The Transformative Approach to Conflict, available here – and an audio recording of it is in the audiobook version of The Promise. . ., available here)] my reading of Elizabeth’s language and affect was of toxicity, bitterness, sarcasm, and mockery. I saw these characteristics in Elizabeth throughout the mediation and even more so toward the end. (If this is not an accurate assessment, then my reading of her is really skewed.) If this is the case, could the negative elements be the result of her entrenched feelings? Could their entrenchment be aided by empowerment shifts? One can feel strong / empowered in negativity and I think Elizabeth was much more empowered than she was recognizant of Julie.

Answer 4: Without characterizing Elizabeth’s behavior myself, I’d like to start with some general comments about how the transformative model might apply. One of the challenges in applying the transformative model is identifying the parties’ weakness and self-absorption, as well as their shifts toward strength (empowerment shifts) and toward responsiveness (recognition shifts). Toxicity, bitterness, sarcasm, and mockery suggest both “weakness” and “self-absorption”. They suggest weakness in that they reveal distress and also in that they seem unhelpful to the party in their efforts to improve their situation. And they suggest “self-absorption” in that they reveal a lack of understanding of or openness to the other party. Of course, given the negative connotations of those words (except maybe “sarcasm” which can be amusing), we, as transformative mediators, wouldn’t make those characterizations. Instead we’d assume that what we’re seeing is “weakness and self-absorption”, which has no negative connotation to us, as it’s the natural human experience of conflict, though it is an experience that people prefer to shift away from.

If we were in Julie’s shoes (the other party), we would have choices to make about how best to balance care for ourselves and care for Elizabeth as a fellow human. If, as Julie, we were interpreting Elizabeth the way you were, we might wish either to protect ourselves from Elizabeth’s toxicity, or to engage with her in a way that helped her see our humanity, or some combination. These would be our judgment calls to make based on our values, and on our sense of the possibilities.

As for whether those 4 characteristics you mention are the result of Elizabeth’s entrenched feelings, that might be true. As Julie, we might decide there’s no hope of Elizabeth changing (or if we’ve had enough training from Joe and Baruch, we might always assume there’s hope). As transformative mediators, we wouldn’t assume that Elizabeth will remain entrenched in those feelings, especially when she’s receiving support in her efforts at shifting away from those feelings. And yes, just as you say, those feelings could certainly be changed as part of empowerment shifts.

When you say that one can feel strong/empowered in negativity, and that Elizabeth was empowered but did not show a similar level of responsiveness, that also might be true. As transformative mediators, we have no expectation about how quickly recognition shifts will occur. And we generally assume that empowerment shifts come first, though we find they’re usually followed closely by recognition shifts. When you say “negativity” I assume you mean that Elizabeth continued to express a negative view of Julie. As transformative mediators, we would not see that as a problem (not that we would evaluate it, but say a person is, after years of oppression, rising up and standing up for themselves, it’s a bit predictable that empowerment would come first, and that treating someone kindly if you view them as your oppressor might take a while). By the way, though, that final handshake between Elizabeth and Julie did appear to me to suggest a significant recognition shift by Elizabeth.

Another interpretation of Elizabeth’s behavior is that her sense of weakness persisted longer into the video than you’re suggesting. Strong or harsh language toward the other party does not necessarily mean “strength” as we mean it. Such language is often a desperate attempt to gain a sense of strength by someone who is feeling weak.

Also, incidentally, having watched that video many times with different groups of mediators and mediation students, I’ve found that reactions to all of the parties vary widely. This suggests to me that our biases invariably affect how we see parties. This fact makes it especially comforting to use an approach to mediation that doesn’t subject parties to my biased guesses what’s going on with any certain party, but which allows me to assume that all parties would prefer to move toward greater strength and responsiveness, regardless of where they are at the moment. The approach also frees me up to observe, without evaluating, the conversation as it unfolds.


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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