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What Does “Empowerment” Look Like And How Can Mediators Facilitate It?


The literature on mediation and conflict resolution often talks about “empowerment”. A respected name in mediation like Bernard Mayer, for example, says “the essence of what the field of conflict resolution has to offer to disputants is an empowering approach to solving serious conflict”. [1] Similarly, the authors of The Promise of Mediation, a key text for the “transformative” model of mediation, see “empowerment” as one of two key features of a credible resolution method (the other being “recognition”). They describe an “empowerment shift” as a process in which “the party moves from weakness to greater strength”. [2] Many other authors and practitioners in the field would assent that “empowerment” is a vital aspect of dispute resolution. It is strange then, that there does not seem to be any agreed understanding of what “empowerment” exactly is. Indeed the literature on dispute resolution is often mute when it comes to articulating any conception of empowerment.

I will have more to say about what I think empowerment is as we go along. To start out though, I think a helpful description is that empowerment is a key component of fulfilled human living. It is a state in which the person is at home with their identity and has cultivated a healthy relationship to the world and to their choices. By “healthy”, I mean vital, useful and enriching. As such “empowerment” is synonymous with taking responsibility, avoiding the identity of “victim” and of what some people like to call “integrated” living. In this piece then, I want to explore the idea of empowerment as it impacts mediation and alternative dispute resolution in general. I will set out what I think empowerment is made up of before exploring how it’s particularly relevant to us as practitioners and how we can facilitate it.

Aspect One: Empowerment is Cognitive – It Helps us See Choices and to Challenge Unhelpful Beliefs

The first aspect of empowerment I want to set out is the cognitive. What I mean by “cognitive” is that empowerment can be described as a person’s new ability to see options and alternatives that they didn’t see before. The result of this is that the person believes they have new choices they didn’t have before or a new freedom they haven’t experienced before. Of course, formally, they always had these choices, but they didn’t see that they had them. Empowerment is the seeing. How many times have we heard of or worked on a case with a person who stayed in an abusive relationship for years? Naturally the question arises as to why they didn’t leave earlier. When the answer is given that they lacked the sense of personal empowerment to do so, what is meant is that they didn’t properly see or understand (both cognitive verbs) that they had a choice to do so. They were disempowered.

This also applies to the other party in the relationship: Why did the abusive party remain in the relationship? If the conventional wisdom is that the person receiving abuse stays in the relationship because, at some level, they mistake it for love, what sense can we make of the person meeting out the abuse? Why did they persist in it? Is it simply because they are a bad person? Empowerment understood in cognitive terms also helps us here. The abusive party may not have been empowered to see that they had the choice to expresses themselves in another way and that this new form of expression need not undermine their identity. In both cases the choices may seem clear to an outsider, but for both parties, empowerment means that they see their choices for the first time. Effectively, empowerment gives them choice.

A related aspect of empowerment in this context is that it is reflected in the person’s new awareness as to how their beliefs, their “map of reality” if you like, are a help or a hindrance in their life. This awareness requires that they can observe or witness their beliefs and recognise when any of them have gotten in their way of flourishing as people (note again how “observe”, “witness”, “recognise” are all cognitive terms). The key idea here is that once they notice that something (a belief, value, norm or whatever) is not working, that is, it is not giving them the results they hoped for; they are much more likely to change. Let’s take the example of a person who believes that people are all essentially self-serving and that this means that no meaningful intimacy can be achieved in life. Naturally, this belief will influence how they interpret the world around them, putting a slant on behaviours they see and perceiving them as self-serving. In addition, it will influence the person’s own behaviour, perhaps to be very guarded around people and taking steps to protect themselves from manipulation or exploitation. The upshot of this is that they will find it harder to form intimate relationships, not because the world conforms to their belief, but because their beliefs are self-fulfilling. Their belief that intimacy is almost impossible will make it more likely that they will not experience human intimacy. Empowerment, understood in cognitive terms, is reflected in a person’s ability to distance oneself from one’s beliefs, to review which are helpful towards fulfilled living and which are not, and to revise the unhelpful ones.

Aspect Two: Empowerment is Linguistic – We Gain a New Vocabulary for Expression and this Makes us Capable of New Experiences

The second aspect of empowerment I want to set out is the linguistic. What I mean by “linguistic” is that empowerment comes from (and gives us) a new language for self-expression and, with that new language, we become capable of new experiences. Let’s take the word “sad”. If a person only has the word “sad” to describe when they are feeling low, then they will understand every emotional lull as sadness. However, an emotional low may also be a form of depression and, in certain instances, depression is “anger turned inward”. Only having the word “sad” for these emotional states therefore ensures that the person will not understand the source of their emotion and so find it much harder to address it. Empowerment, in furnishing the person with a fuller vocabulary, helps them to improve their understanding of themselves and to address the source of their discontentment. If I have words like “melancholy”, “disaffected”, “alienated”, “enraged” and so on available to me, it means I become capable of a more accurate description of my inner states and so of a more appropriate source of action. The response to feeling low may not be medication or grief-counselling, but perhaps to contact one’s anger, address one’s disappointments and so on. (There is a whole other article on how politically incorrect anger has become, particularly in conflict resolution, but that’s another day’s work).

When I say that a new language makes us capable of new experiences, what I mean is that there is a deep connection between our language, how we interpret the world and the experiences we are able to have. My three year-old daughter does not have angst. She is not capable of experiencing angst, because her cognitive-linguistic capacities don’t stretch to it. The theorist Ken Wilber puts it nicely when he says that the reason we forget early childhood experiences is that they happened before we developed language. Our language development not only reflects the world, it also shapes our interpretation of it. So if the experience happened before we acquired language, we won’t recall it, because memory is shaped by language. [3] Indeed all experiences are shaped by language.

In gaeilge, the Irish language, there are words that aren’t directly translatable into English. For example the word “flahulach” (pronounced fla-who-lock) means that kind of jubilation you feel when you’ve just come into money and you want to throw it about. Precisely because these words aren’t easily translatable, my experience has been that, while members of many cultures can be generous with money when they’ve come into it, the Irish are specifically flahulach! Relating this to empowerment, a person cannot experience what it means to be empowered unless and until they are given a new language that enables them to see themselves as more than “a victim”. For all its shrill exponents, the advocates of movements in identity politics (sometimes called “political correctness”) understand that, when you change language and the words we use about ourselves and others, you can change the world because you alter people’s interpretation and experience of the world. The tragedy of cultures that come out of experiences of oppression is that the language of oppression can become internalised to the extent its members can struggle to talk about themselves in an empowering way and so can find it hard to experience empowerment. As an Irish person, I notice a remarkable difference between how professional athletes from the US and from Ireland describe their success. The former talk about “focus”, “drive” and so on, the latter are much more likely to talk about “luck”. Draw your own conclusions. Having the language shapes how we interpret things and so it influences what kind of experience we have.

Aspect Three: Empowerment is Emotional – We Develop a New Relationship to, and Understanding of, Our Emotions

The third aspect of empowerment I want to set out is the emotional. What I mean by “emotional” is that empowerment gives us a new emotional vocabulary (as described above) and so a new emotional range (we become capable of a greater number and depth of emotions) but also a new relationship to our emotions. Disempowered people do not have emotions. Very often they are either very cut off from their emotions or they are so deeply immersed in them that they can’t see a way out. In the first case, a disempowered person has such difficulty feeling uncomfortable feelings, they suppress them and so, inevitably, these feelings come out in unhealthy ways. Witness the amount of passive aggression there is in everyday life in North America. I believe it is at epidemic proportions. It is a direct result of people not being sufficiently empowered to openly feel their uncomfortable feelings because, if they do, they’ll have to do something about them. For example they might have to initiate a difficult conversation with someone or make an unpopular decision, both of which will threaten their “people pleasing” tendencies (and “people pleasing” is a sure sign of disempowerment).

So being completely cut off or unaware of your emotions, ensuring that they come out in unhealthy ways (and all often because of a pathological fear of displeasing other people) is one disempowered relationship to one’s emotions. On the other hand though, you have the person who is so immersed in their emotions, they have no perspective on them, no distance or capacity to observe them. Indeed they lack the ability to witness their emotions in much the same way that the cognitively disempowered person described in part one above lacks the ability to “witness” their beliefs. This emotionally saturated person, having no perspective, is totally ruled by their emotions and so is disempowered by virtue of the fact that their emotions take their choice from them. They do not have moods, they are their moods. They do not feel emotions, at that moment in time they are their emotions.

Empowerment, in facilitating a new relationship to one’s emotions, transcends both of these tendencies. From the repressed tendency, it takes the value of distance, but rejects the idea of running from uncomfortable feelings. From the overly emotional person, it takes learning to feel one’s feelings, but rejects being a slave to them at all times. Instead, empowerment consists in being able to observe one’s emotions with interest and compassion. Put another way, we neither canonise nor exorcise them. Empowerment lies in allowing our emotions to run their course, without judging them. How many people add to their emotional turmoil by not only having difficult feelings, but then adding to their misery by negatively judging themselves for having difficult feelings? In this context, there is a great story about C.J. Jung, a father of modern psychotherapy. One day, a patient was late for an appointment and Jung was so angry that he threw rocks at the patient’s boat (Jung was working on a small island at the time). The patient fled, and that night Jung asked in his diary why he had thrown rocks at the patient. What’s amazing though, is that there is no tone of judgement, remorse or regret, just curiosity. Empowerment is reflected in a change in our relationship to our emotions, from judgement or fear, to acceptance and curiosity.

How Can Empowerment be Facilitated?

The first, and obvious, requirement for facilitating empowerment is that we model it. In other words, we must have attained some level of empowerment ourselves before we are able to facilitate it in others. However, if this is true then it means that power is not quantitative We don’t “balance” situations or “empower” people by taking power from one party and then trying to hand it to another. Rather, the best form of power “balancing” is to show people how to achieve empowerment. This qualitative idea of empowerment is at odds with a lot of people’s approaches to power balancing (which is why I believe these approaches are doomed to fail).

A key competency in empowerment that has run through this piece is a facility or capacity for distance, the ability to observe, witness and recognise what is going on internally. In order to develop these competencies, we need a language that helps us describe it, but we also need to belong to communities that are committed to meaningful reflection (the term “reflective-practitioner has become so over-used that at this point I’m not sure it’s helpful). In the context of mediation and dispute resolution we have to ask whether our practices reflect this. Am I the only person to have noticed how poor mediators and people professionally involved in dispute resolution can be at dealing with conflict in their own organisations? I recently witnessed a meeting of mediators where a member was shouted down and interrupted because what they were saying was unpopular. To what extent does the way we organise ourselves professionally and behave collectively reflect not empowerment, but fear and control?

There are a range of “transformative practices” that can help cultivate the capacity to witness that I am setting out and that I believe lies at the heart of empowerment. Take your pick from the various schools of yoga, psychotherapy or any other physically mindful or contemplative practice. [4] Whichever one we choose, I believe it is time to move past the various schools of mediation and conflict resolution towards an integrated model. Such a model would facilitate empowerment by taking seriously these transformative practices. However, it would also avoid the false dichotomy between so-called “interest-based” approaches on the one hand and “transformative” approaches on the other. [5] If Bernard Meyer is correct, and I believe he is, then the focus of all conflict resolution should be empowerment. An integrated model of mediation would address this by incorporating the healthy aspects of all approaches, in a way that achieves a new synthesis and a new and higher level of functioning. Who’s with me?

End Notes

1 Bernard Mayer, The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution: A Practitioner’s Approach, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2000, pg. 240

2 Robert A. Baruch Bush & Joseph P. Folger, The Promise of Mediation; The Transformative Approach to Conflict, revised edition, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2005, pg. 75.

3 “The greatest reason that most childhood experiences are forgotten is not so much that they are violently repressed (some indeed are), as that they do not fit the structure of membership-description and thus one doesn’t have the terms with which to recall them”. By “membership-description”, Wilber means our attachment to a linguistic structure. See The Atman Project: A Transpersonal View of Human Development, Quest Books, Wheaton Ill, 1980, pg. 25.

4 For a detailed discussion of these, see Michael Murphy’s wonderful The Future of the Body: Explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature, Penguin Putnam, New York, 1992, pgs. 543-586.

5 Though it has much to offer, a troubling feature of “transformative mediation”, at least as it is set out by its defenders, is that it believes that different schools of mediation are mutually exclusive. “Even though each of the theories of conflict and mediation may be valid – including the transformative theory – we do not believe that they can be combined or integrated, at either the theoretical or practical levels.” The Promise of Mediation, pg. 45.


Donal O’Reardon

Originally from Ireland, Donal O'Reardon is a mediator, coach, author and founder of O’Reardon Consulting. He holds graduate degrees in theology and philosophy and specialises in communication and conflict management skills with an emotional intelligence foundation. He is the author of “Introducing Philosophy: Questions and Readings” (Emond Montgomery, 2014) as well as… MORE >

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