What value could Transformative Mediation Practices hold for me?


What value could Transformative Mediation Practices hold for me? 

Dr Sandra Fenton

Parents, teachers, principals and administrators can utilise the principles and practices of transformative mediation to help themselves and others become clear about choices and support them in making good decisions about how to resolve their disputes. Transformative mediation is:
[A] process in which a third party works with parties in conflict to help them change the quality of their conflict interaction from negative and destructive to positive and constructive, as they discuss and explore various topics and possibilities for resolution (Bush & Folger, 1994, p. 2).

Purpose of transformative mediation (Why?)

Transformative theory suggests that one of the reasons people voluntarily come to mediation is their “underlying desire to find a different mode of dealing with their conflict” (Bush & Pope, 2004, p. 54). Crum (1987) agrees that people come to mediation because they are so disconnected from each other that they do not know how to productively communicate anymore. Mayer also agrees (2004) that negative conflict interactions have often become habitual with some people and mediation has the potential to show them it is possible to communicate respectfully. “They [the parties] want to feel more in control of themselves and the process” (Bush & Pope, 2004, p.54).

Transformative theory is based on a relational world view. It maintains that people generally do not want to victimize nor be victimized, even during conflict. Rather, they would prefer to feel better about themselves and the other person (Bush, 2002). This is the essence of the “promise of mediation” (Bush & Folger, 2001).  

From the transformative perspective, conflict is understood as a “crisis in human interaction that interferes with the need to act with compassionate strength” (Bush & Folger, 1994, p. 6). By compassionate strength Bush and Folger (1994) suggest people are motivated not only by self-interest but also concern for others, and that behaviour is reflected in a balance of strength of self and compassion. Conflict tends to destabilize a person’s experience of both self and other. People in conflict may be mistrusting, exhibit intense anger demonstrated by yelling, threatening, name calling and demonizing the other. They may use tactics such as bluffing, blaming or intentionally misleading each other (Moore, 2003). However, people can and do have the capacity to rebound and recover from this alienating behaviour (Goleman, 2003; Uvnas-Mober, Arn & Magnusson, 2005).

Transformative theory suggests that what bothers people the most about conflict is how it drives them to behave towards themselves and others in ways that are not only uncomfortable, but even repugnant to their own sense of self. In short, conflict has the potential to trigger a destructive communication pattern that people find profoundly disturbing.

Help in overcoming that crisis and regaining their capacity to communicate productively is what parties need and want from a helper, be they a professional mediator, or informal facilitator (Bush & Folger, 2005). This view is also supported by Beck, (1999); Goleman, (1995); Kressel, (1985); Lind and Tyler, (1988); and McCorkle and Mills, (1992).

Critical to the transformative approach to helping people resolve their conflicts, according to Bush and Folger, (2005, p. 49) is the notion that “conflict generates, for almost anyone it touches, a sense of their own weakness and incapacity”. This observation is supported by Goleman (2003), Ashforth and Humprey (1995), and Burton, (1996). Based on research from neurophysiology, humans respond to conflict in a ‘fight or flight’ response (Goleman, 2003; Goleman & Gurin, 1995; Seyle, 1971; Uvnas-Moberg, Arn, & Magnusson, 2005).  Exposure to conflict can activate the corpus amygdaloideum also known as the amygdala, and in so activating this part of the brain, individuals may lose physiologically, their capacity to think clearly and speak logically (Goleman & Gurin, 1995). Thus for most people conflict is likely to be perceive as a negative and threatening experience.

Bush and Folger (1994) propose that mediation has the capacity to engender two important positive effects for people: empowerment and recognition. They define empowerment as “the restoration to individuals of a sense of their own capacity to handle life’s problems” (Bush & Folger, 1994, p. 2). Empowerment means the party has the confidence to clearly communicate their perspective even during conflict.  Recognition is defined as “the evocation in individuals of acknowledgement and empathy for the situation and the problems of others” (Bush & Folger, 1994, p. 2). Recognition means that the person has the capacity to understand the other’s perspective even when they disagree with it.

Empowerment and recognition are the focus of each transformative intervention, which supports party self-determination (Bush & Folger, 1994). Once people feel heard and understood, there is no need to be defensive and argumentative so they normally calm down. They may then regain their capacity to listen and understand the other person’s perspective. Furthermore, when parties recognize and accept that they can have differing perspectives on an issue and still resolve it together, the magic of transformative mediation can be realized.

Transformative mediation has ten hallmarks that explain its practice (Folger & Bush, 1996).  One hallmark states, “The parties have what it takes” (Bush & Folger, 1994).  The transformative mediator possesses a fundamental belief that the parties are competent and have the ability to deal with their own situation on their own terms. Transformative mediators also believe that people are fundamentally decent. Parties who are struggling are seen as only temporarily disabled, weakened, defensive or self absorbed (Goleman, 2003). The mediator’s role is to recognise opportunities for parties to move from a position of weakness to one of strength or from a state of self-absorption to one of openness to new recognitions, if they so choose.

Critical to the transformative approach is the foundational assumption of party competency. People, with support can find solutions for themselves. This removes the impulse to find solutions for the parties. The assumption of decency can help the mediator look for and find opportunities to support recognition of the other party’s perspective. If a party feels the other is behaving in bad faith the mediator encourages and helps the concerned party to pursue safely, this concern, as long as it takes, to his/her satisfaction (Bush & Folger, 1996).

Another hallmark of transformative practice is, “The parties know best” (Folger & Bush, 1996, p.271).  A transformative mediator refuses to be judgmental, regarding a party’s views, opinions, or choices and adopts an optimistic view of a party’s competence and motives.  In this regard, parties are seen as good people caught in a difficult circumstance.  Personal viewpoints and value judgments are human and it is the responsibility of the mediator to refrain from sharing them. Madonik (2002, p. 121) states that “When you influence answers, you give people your information. You do not get theirs”. The respect given to the parties assumes that they know their situation much better than the mediator ever could. This approach keeps the mediator humble. If frustration is expressed, the mediator assists the parties to clarify exactly what they want the other person to understand (Folger & Bush, 1996).

The transformative model is based on two major premises. Premises are the fundamental value-based beliefs that people have about the nature of conflict and the capacities of people in it. The first transformative premise is that mediation has the potential to alter the way people communicate not only in the mediation but also after it, and that this improved communication is valued by the parties and benefits society (Bush & Folger, 2005, Mayer, 2004a). Effective communication has the potential to strengthen people’s capacity to analyse situations, and make rational decisions. In addition, effective communication has the potential to increase people’s capacity to listen, understand and consider the perspectives of others. It enables people in conflict to develop a greater degree of self-determination and responsiveness to others (Bush & Folger, 2005).

The second premise of transformative mediation states that party self-determination in mediation can happen only if the mediator develops an attitude focused on party empowerment (Bush and Folger, 1996). Therefore, “the most important result of a conflict intervention is a change in the quality of the conflict interaction itself, from destructive to constructive from negative to positive, regardless of the specific substantive outcome” (Bush, 2002, p. 19).

Next month I will explore the purpose (what) and practice (how) of transformative mediation.

Dr Sandra Fenton and Dr Brenda Beatty are facilitating a three day workshop on Leading Transformative Conflict Resolution at Bastow on 3, 4 and 5 September 2014. 

Continue on to Part 2 >>


Antes, J., & Saul, J. (2001). Evaluating mediation practice from a transformative perspective. Mediation Quarterly, 18(3), 319-322.

Antes, J., & Saul, J. (2002). What works in transformative mediator coaching: Field test findings. Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal, 3, 97-109.

Astor, H., & Chinkin, C. (2002). Dispute resolution in Australia. Australia: LexisNexis Butterworths.

Burton, J. (1996). Conflict resolution: Its language and processes. London: Scarecrow Press. Inc.

Bush, R. (1994). The dilemmas of mediation practice: A study of ethical dilemmas and policy implications. Journal of Dispute Resolution, 1994(1), 1-56.

Bush, R., (2002). Mediation practice: The transformative framework.  Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation Inc. New York: (Unpublished seminar workbook) New York.

Bush, R., & Folger, J. (1994). The promise of mediation.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Bush, R, & Folger, J. (2005). The promise of mediation (2nd ed.).  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers

Bush, R., & Pope, S. (2002). Changing the quality of conflict interaction: The principles and practice of transformative mediation.  Pepperdine Resolution Law Journal, 3, 67-96.

Bush, R., & Pope, S. (2004). Transformative mediation: changing the quality of family conflict interaction.  In J. Folberg, A. Milne & P. Salem (Ed), Divorce and Family Mediation: Models, techniques, and applications. New York: The Guilford Press.

Charlton, R., & Dewdney, M. (2004). The mediator's handbook skills and strategies for practitioners.  Sydney: The Law Book Company Limited.

Crum, T. (1987). The magic of conflict: Turning a life of work into a work of art. New York: Touchstone.

Folberg, J. (1983). A mediation overview: History and dimensions of practice. Mediation Quarterly, 1, 3-14.

Folberg, J. (2003). The continuing history of conflict resolution practice. ACResolution, 2(2), 13-15.

Goleman, D. (2003). Destructive emotions: And how we can overcome them.  A dialogue with the Dalai Lama. New York: Bantam Books.

Goleman, D. & Gurin, J., (1995). Mind body medicine. NSW: Choice Books.

Lind, A. & Tyler, T. (1988).   The Social psychology of procedural justice.  New York: Plenum Press.

Madonik, B. (2001). I hear what you say, but what are you telling me?  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Mayer, B. (2000). The dynamics of conflict resolution: A practitioner’s guide. San-Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Mayer, B. (2004a).  Facilitative mediation.  In J. Folberg, A. Milne & P. Salem (Ed), Divorce and family mediation: Models, techniques, and applications. New York: The Guilford Press.

Mayer, B., (2004b). Beyond Neutrality: Confronting the crisis in conflict resolutions. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Moore, C., (2003). The mediation process: Practical strategies for resolving conflict (3rd ed. Revised). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Riskin, L. (1996).  Understanding mediator’s orientation, strategies, and techniques: A grid for the perplexed. Harvard Negotiation Law Review, 1, 7-52.

Riskin, L. (2003).Decision-making in mediation: The new old grid and the new new grid system. Notre Dame Law Review, 79(1), 1-54.

Tillett, G., & French, B. (2010). Resolving conflict. 4th Edition. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Uvnas-Moberg, K., Arn, I., & Magnusson, D. (2005). The psychobiology of emotion: The role of the oxytocinergic system. International Journal of Behavioural Medicine, 12(2), 59-65.