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Peer Mediation in Schools
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,
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
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,
* assisting parties to decide for themselves,
and together with each other if they chose, the best
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"
b>) 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
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
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
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
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.
for the Study of Conflict Transformation
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.
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