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Transformative Mediation Misunderstood

From Arnold W. Zeman’s blog

It is disappointing that Jason A. Waxman’s  “A Nuanced Comparison of Transformative, Insight and Narrative Mediation” on the website relies, in two cases, on outdated source material and, in the third case, on a secondary source.  In the case of transformative mediation, he cites a 1996 journal article by Bush and Folger when the most definitive and recent articulation of the framework is to be found in the revised edition of The Promise of Mediation, published by Jossey-Bass in 2004.  Similarly, for insight mediation, he cites a 2007 journal article by Picard and Melchin when the most current statement of the model is to be found in their 2008 Transforming Conflict Through Insight.  And, in the case of the narrative mediation model, his piece relies on an article on the website (the URL for which is cited incorrectly), a secondary source, when the 2000 Narrative Mediation — A New Approach to Conflict Resolution by the model’s originators, Monk and Winslade, is available.  Indeed, chapter 1 of the book appeared on the website in 2001.

As surprising as this sourcing is, it is becoming common place to see the transformative mediation model yet again misunderstood.  I am not interested in a close reading to comment on what I see as flaws in the model’s description.  I will point out, however, that the interested reader would do well to dismiss the definition of  “recognition” as it is incorrect.  What interests me more is why misunderstanding about transformative mediation persists, 15 years after publication of the first edition of Bush and Folger’s seminal work and five years after the revised edition was released.

It seems to me that there are two principal reasons for the many misunderstandings.  One is that the authors of the transformative model have written two books with the same title, and the other has to do with frames of reference and values.

Despite the identical titles of the two editions of The Promise of Mediation, the books are almost entirely two distinct works.   The decision of the publisher to issue a revised edition with the same title has had unfortunate consequences.  Many readers of the 1994 first edition have not consulted the 2004 revised edition, assuming that the books are substantially the same.  In fact, all the two works have in common are the first and last chapters.  All the other material is completely different.  What is more, the 2004 revised edition contains a complete transcript of a training mediation, “The ‘Purple’ House Conversations”, together with a detailed analysis of what is going on from a transformative perspective.


The value of this material is that it brings into micro-focus, illustrations, albeit simulated in a role play, of how transformative theory and concepts are practised.  Just as important, the revised edition makes clear that the term ‘transformation’ refers to the potential for people doing conflict differently and more productively in the course of the current mediation as well as in future conflict situations.

The other major factor in the misunderstandings surrounding transformative mediation has to do with ideological lenses and values.  Transformative practice is explicitly based on a relational ideology

[…] in which human beings are assumed to be fundamentally social — formed in and through their relations with other human beings, essentially connected to others, and motivated by a desire for both personal autonomy and constructive social interaction (Bush & Folger, 1994; Della Noce, 1999).

The nature of conflict is seen as a crisis in interaction that involves both a sense of vulnerability and self-absorption that destabilize the person in conflict.  The transformative mediator believes that not only does the person in conflict want to re-establish a productive balance individually and socially but that she has the capacity to do it. A transformative practitioner is committed to applying a micro-focus to the interaction of disputants in mediation to support them in their conversation as they spiral downwards through vulnerability and self-absorption, shift to empowerment and recognition and back again, and spiral upwards to greater strength of self and recognition of the other.  Given the nature of conflict it posits, transformative theory views mediation as a process of communication or conversation instead of a negotiation.  Priority is placed on individuals becoming clearer about how they view the conflict situation, what options are open, what resources are available and what decisions about these they are prepared to make.  Decisions are freely made and are not guided either in process terms or substantively by the mediator.  The transformative mediator does not set guidelines for the mediation; participants decide whether to have what ever type of guideline they wish at any time in the process; the mediator does not ask questions for her own information or questions that direct the participants to consider issues and factors that they have not themselves raised; the mediator follows the participants to wherever they wish to take the conversation, and so on.

Clearly if one does not subscribe to this ideology and set of beliefs, there is much here to take issue with.  For example, if one is committed to an individualist ideology where people are seen as acting on the basis of their perceived self-interest, the transformative framework will not be grasped on its own terms but rather seen through a set of lenses that are more suitable for other mediation models; it’s kind of like trying to understand and explain baseball in terms of three downs, field goals and touchdowns.  Similarly, if conflict is seen as a problem situation that has arisen where disputants can be assisted by a process that implicitly relies on a diagnosis in terms of scarce resources, of differing interests, between competing narratives, or of deeply-held personal cares that are perceived as threatened by the other, the transformative approach will be misunderstood.

All of these mediation approaches have their rightful places.  Too often allegiance to one model leads to misunderstanding of other perspectives.  All in the conflict resolution field, I think, are at times guilty of this.  It is unfortunate that the inclusiveness that is so often advocated by us as collaborative practitioners is not always applied to our own discipline.


Arnold W. Zeman

After over 33 years in the public service of Canada, the last 20 of which as an executive, I retired from government in 2006 to pursue my passion to help people resolve their differences non-adversarially. I have been trained by the best in the field in both the public and… MORE >

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