Mediation theory generally focuses on models of mediation procedures.  While prescribed procedures obviously can be important factors affecting mediators’ behavior, traditional mediation theories are major oversimplifications that often don’t reflect the reality of how mediators actually think and act.  Many mediators agree with this critique, but these theoretical concepts still are widely used without much thought.

This earlier post describes how mediators inevitably develop their individual mediation models that they evolve over time.  It is based on Kahneman and Tversky’s work on conscious and unconscious thinking and Kressel’s work on mediators’ actual mental models.  Kressel argues that mediators’ actual mental models are largely unconscious mixtures of formal models and “personal ‘mini-theories’ of conflict and role of mediators.”

In that post, I suggest that each mediator has a unique model based on:

  • Mediators’ goals
  • Types of case
  • Types of parties and other participants
  • Histories of the conflicts
  • Parties’ goals, interests, and positions
  • Mediators’ routine mediation procedures
  • Common challenging situations mediators encounter
  • Mediators’ principles and strategies to handle challenges

I sketched three hypothetical examples.  One is a fairly new volunteer at a community mediation center.  The second is a mid-career family lawyer and mediator.  The third is a retired judge who mediates large civil cases.  Just from these descriptions, you can recognize contrasts in how different mediators conduct their mediation processes.

Collecting Real Mediators’ Real Mediation Models

To provide better accounts of how mediators actually think and act, I invited practicing mediators to write descriptions of their own mediation models and how their models have evolved over time.  Their models provide their perspectives in the following sections:

Context of My Mediations

  • My Background, Training, and Experience
  • Types of Cases and Participants in My Mediations
  • Common Patterns of Conflict Before and During My Mediations
  • Common Patterns of Parties’ Goals, Interests, and Positions in My Mediations

My Approach to Mediation

  • My Core Values and Goals in Mediation
  • My Routine Mediation Procedures
  • Challenging Situations in My Mediations and How I Handle Them
  • Evolution of My Approach
  • [If applicable:] How My Teaching or Training Affected My Mediation Approach
  • [If applicable:] How My Mediation Approach Affected My Teaching or Training
  • What I Learned Writing This Document

The mediators’ descriptions of their models are self-reports, which I think are pretty accurate reflections of the authors’ beliefs and intentions.  The descriptions probably reflect the authors’ behavior to a large extent, though probably not as much as their thinking.  Theory inevitably is clearer and simpler than practice, which is contingent on a complex combination of circumstances.  It’s also hard to observe oneself objectively.  Even so, thoughtful mediators’ approaches probably are close to their aspirations.

Ron Kelly’s and Michael Lang’s Models

I started by inviting two very experienced mediators to describe their models.  Michael Lang is a mediator trained in law and therapy who handled marital and workplace disputes as well as cases involving organizations.   Ron Kelly is a Berkeley, California mediator who handles business and organizational disputes.  They are two of the most self-aware and intentional mediators I know.

Here are Ron’s and Michael’s models.  Notice what you learn from these accounts.

Here are a few things.  Their personalities, backgrounds, values, and motivations for mediating had a big influence on their techniques and careers, which evolved over time.  They regularly handled distinctive types of cases (e.g., family or business) and recognized common patterns of parties’ goals, interests, and positions.  They tailored their procedures. such as their intake process, accordingly, and they developed specific routines and strategies for handling particularly challenging situations.

There are similarities in their backgrounds, values, and goals, which profoundly affect their work.  They both found value in techniques used in family therapy or mediation.  Yet their models are very different from each other.

I believe that every mediator’s model is unique considering numerous factors affecting mediators’ thinking and behavior such as those listed above.  Imagine the most standard type of case you can think of – for example, landlords evicting tenants for non-payment of rent.  Perceptive mediators and observers would recognize that although there are many standard elements in these mediations, they all are different, and different mediators would handle the same cases differently.

How Can You Use These Insights?

Instructors can use them in your courses.  For example, you can assign students to read Michael’s and/or Ron’s models.  You can assign students to write papers (1) sketching the models they used in simulated or actual cases in the course or (2) describing their aspirations for their mediation models after they graduate.  You can use the structure of these models as the basis of Stone Soup interviews.  While this project focuses on mediators’ models, it can be adapted for students to learn about lawyers’ models as advocates in mediation or legal practice generally.

Practitioners can use these ideas to get a better understanding of how you actually mediate – or at least how you think you mediate.  Almost certainly, you do a lot of things unconsciously.  By writing your own model, you may recognize some unconscious routines that work well for you and some that don’t.  You may find it especially helpful to systematically analyze the various elements as a coherent model.  By becoming more conscious of what you (think you) do, you should be able to adjust your approach and improve your performance.

Mediation program administrators and trainers can use this framework to help mediators be more reflective about their individual models and how they might improve their work.

Researchers can use mediators’ models or conduct research using these variables to better understand how mediators’ thinking affects their behaviors and the parties’ reactions.

Real Mediation Model Project

I will collect and post a series of real mediators’ models.  I have invited respected mediation clinic directors to describe their models, which I plan to post this fall.  I am particularly interested in these folks because they work at the intersection of theory and practice.  It will be fascinating to see the similarities and differences in their models.

I might invite other categories of mediators, e.g., civil or family mediators, to write their models.  If all goes well, I may compile them into a book, similar to the Theory-of-Change book, which can be downloaded for free.

Stay tuned.