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…Well, What Do You Do Then?

Arnold W. Zeman’s blog

After setting out and linking to my top ten reasons for being hired, Geoff Sharp of mediator blah…blah… asks: “. . .well, what do you do then [his emphasis]?”

As I’ve already remarked, this is a very legitimate question.  It’s a question that most if not all mediators have been asked by their clients at one time or another.  And, it’s a question that is often specifically put to transformative mediators by facilitative or evaluative mediators.

From the standpoint of clients in session, it often looks like the transformative mediator isn’t doing very much.  But appearances can be deceiving.  Think of the duck swimming on the lake — on the surface of the lake, the duck doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything at all.  Below the water’s surface, it’s a different story where it sometimes can appear that the feet are in perpetual motion.

It’s a bit like that in transformative practice.  The transformative mediator on the surface appears at times not to be doing much of anything, just sitting there and letting the clients directly engage each other.  At other times, she appears to be doing many of the things that her non-transformative colleagues do — deep listening; reflecting; summarizing; asking questions; checking in at different points in the process; etc.

But her interventions take place (or are withheld) with a very clear and specific purpose always in mind — to support the clients’ getting clearer about their situation and making decisions about how they wish to handle it within the ‘here and now’ of their interaction in the mediation room .  Often, we do this by using opportunities in the conversation to allow a client to hear himself in a way that he hasn’t up until then and, as important, to hear the other person in a different manner.

We act this way (or refrain from acting) because of an explicitly articulated theory that grounds our practice:

  • a theory about the nature of conflict — we see it as a crisis in human interaction; it’s this crisis we find that clients want help with; even when they don’t reach settlement, they often express their satisfaction with the outcome they’ve achieved
  • a theory about human identity — we see identity consisting of a sense of being an autonomous individual and at the same time, a sense of being connected to others, through kinship at one end of the continuum and through a common humanity at the other, and through all types of other relationships in between
  • a theory about human nature — people want to and can resolve the crisis in interaction they’re experiencing — the unsatisfactory state that conflict leaves them in — we believe they can do this by having a conversation where their own naturally-occurring shifts out of the crisis, from confusion to clarity, from self-absorption to openness to the other person, are supported by a disinterested third party who is attentive to these shifts.

Somehow, I can hear Geoff saying: ‘Fine, Arnold, blah, blah, blah.  But my question is still unanswered: what do you do?’  OK, Geoff, let me go back to the duck swimming on the lake.  Like the duck, a lot of what I do as a transformative mediator goes on below the surface:

  1. I listen very carefully;
  2. I monitor my directive impulses to influence the conversation the way I think might be helpful (and do not act on these impulses);
  3. I consider what intervention, if any, might serve the purpose of supporting the clients’ shifting to clarity, to decision-making at every level and to opening to or recognizing the other if this is what they want to do.

It could be that I’ll reflect back what a client has said; it could be that I’ll summarize what has been going on in the conversation, highlighting the themes the clients have raised and their differences on these topics; it could be that I’ll ask where they’d like to go now in their conversation; or, it could be that I’ll stay out of the way so that they can engage each other directly.  None of these possibilities is actualized without my going over the three processes above that are under the surface and without my considering where the client is on the continuum from confusion to clarity, from self-absorption to openness to other.

I’m grateful to Geoff for giving me the opportunity to clarify my own thinking about this question from a transformative perspective.


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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