The School Mediator
Peer Mediation Insights From the Desk of Richard Cohen Vol. III, 4/04

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"Transforming" Peer Mediation

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The School Mediator's Field Guide:
Prejudice, Sexual Harassment, Large Groups and Other Daily Challenges
by Richard Cohen
more info


Students Resolving Conflict:
Peer Mediation in Schools

by Richard Cohen
more info


Welcome to the April issue of The School Mediator.

This month's issue explores Transformative Mediation and the important implications this approach to our craft has for school-based peer mediation.

Please send along your thoughts and experiences; hearing from you is the best part of writing this newsletter.

Wishing you the best, wherever you are,

Richard Cohen
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates


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  • "Transforming" Peer Mediation

  • When I was initially trained as a mediator 25 years ago, the following expression was commonly used to describe mediators' work:

    Mediators control the process; parties control the outcome.

    At the time, the expression appeared to be a truism: After all, the thinking went, parties come to mediation because they have been unable to negotiate on their own. Mediators add value to the exchange by providing their process expertise, and by so doing, enable parties to find solutions to their problems.

    But I was never completely comfortable with this conception of mediation. In addition to facilitating problem-solving, my understanding of the purpose of mediation included:

    * providing parties with an opportunity to attain a deeper understanding of the difficulties they confront (an understanding that is relatively accessible to an unbiased "third party" like a mediator),

    * helping parties change the way they interact, and

    * assisting parties to decide for themselves, and together with each other if they chose, the best way forward.


    It was both revelatory and deeply affirming, then, when I first discovered the "Transformative" approach to mediation articulated by Robert A. Baruch Bush and Joseph P. Folger in their 1994 book, The Promise of Mediation: Responding to Conflict through Empowerment and Recognition.

    According to the Transformative framework, a conflict represents first and foremost a "crisis in human interaction--a crisis with a common and predictable character. Specifically, the occurrence of conflict tends to destabilize parties' experience of both self and other, so that each party feels both more vulnerable and more self-absorbed than they did before the conflict." (1)

    The fundamental role of the mediator, as articulated by Bush and Folger, is not to solve problems per se, but to help parties address their situation by highlighting opportunities for parties themselves to replace vulnerability with strength (what they refer to as "empowerment") and self-absorption with a sense of being understood and seen (referred to as "recognition").

    In problem solving oriented mediation, mediators guide parties through a predetermined, linear sequence. First they outline ground rules, then they hear parties' concerns, then determine their interests, then brainstorm solutions, etc.

    The mediators control the process.

    Transformative mediators take a different approach. Although they acknowledge that there are distinct stages of problem solving, they assert that moving through these stages is neither a linear process, nor one that should be controlled by the mediator.

    Parties themselves should "control" the process as well as the outcome.

    Only then will they learn how to manage their relationship more effectively (a relationship which, after all, often began before and will last long after the actual mediation session).

    In my own practice, I have gradually shifted from the problem-solving approach of my early days to a more Transformative orientation.

    What looks different? Here are just a few examples:

    1. I do not set ground rules for the parties at the start of sessions anymore (as in "no interrupting, please listen to each other, etc.). Instead, I ask parties for suggestions as to how they want to conduct their conversation. And I remain sensitive throughout, for at any time they might want to create additional norms (for instance, if parties are preventing each other from speaking).

    2. I do not assume, nor do I enforce, that each party has an initial, uninterrupted time to explain their side of the story, or that parties speak one at a time. Parties can engage one another in conversation immediately if they like, or not. I follow them, as their "stories" unfold in the manner that they determine.


    This can be a more challenging way to mediate, especially for mediators previously trained in other models. It demands a high level of responsiveness to the here and now of the parties' interaction as well as letting go of control of the process.

    Rather than following my process, I am instead doing my utmost to follow the parties.

    This leads to a central question: Is it possible, appropriate, and wise to help student mediators, particularly high school-aged mediators, make a similar shift away from dependence on a model with stages, and toward a more responsive approach?

    Certainly having a sequence of stages can be an aid to mediators of all ages. It provides a road map and the confidence that comes with it. And if the stages are well crafted, the end result is not far from what happens organically during most mediation sessions anyway.

    But dependence upon stages can lead to a sort of rote practice that is not responsive to the parties and that squanders the potential of the mediation process. Have you observed mediators so focused on what they "should" be doing, that they forget to listen well, missing important cues from the parties?

    Although my sense is that middle school-aged and younger mediators need the structure of a stage-based process, I am convinced that high school-aged students can mediate in this way. And I am not alone.

    Will Galloway, Dean of Students at the Watershed Community School in Rockland, Maine, has already integrated the Transformative approach into his high school peer mediation training.

    Will describes his initial focus during the training as helping students understand the mediator's purpose; then he helps trainees refine their ability to recognize and respond to parties' signals requesting clarity/ empowerment (e.g., "Well...I am not really sure what I should do now.") or recognition (e.g., "She has no idea what I have been through.").

    Here at School Mediation Associates, our goal for 2004 is to follow in Will's pioneering footsteps and make our high school peer mediation training more about listening deeply and skillfully to parties and less about following a set of steps.

    I'll keep you posted on our progress.

    In the meantime, write if you have experience with or thoughts about this topic. Do you think high school-aged mediators can mediate without a sequential model? Do they do this anyway? Should they begin with a sequential model, and then move away from it? Please share your thoughts...


    Thanks to Will Galloway and Sally Pope, Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation, Inc., for their assistance in preparing this issue.

    1. From the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation web site. Follow the link below for more information on the Institute.

    Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation

  • About Us
  • For almost twenty years, School Mediation Associates has been devoted to the application and promotion of mediation in schools. SMA's mission is to transform schools into safer, more caring, and more effective institutions. Our books and training programs have been utilized by tens of thousands of people around the world.

    Call us: 617-926-0994
    Email us: sma@schoolmediation.com
    Web us: www.schoolmediation.com
    Post us: 134w Standish Road,
    Watertown, MA 02472 USA
    Order books: 800-833-3318


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