Joseph P. Folger and Robert A. Baruch Bush, "Transformative Mediation and Third-Party Intervention: Ten Hallmarks of a Transformative Approach to Practice,"

Mediation Quarterly 13:4 (Summer 1996) pp. 263-78.

Summary by Tanya Glaser.


In this essay the authors describe ten characteristics of the transformative approach to mediation. They first distinguish between the goals and the practice of transformative mediation, describing briefly the goals of transformative mediation. Drawing upon the insight of experienced mediators, the authors then explore in greater detail ten practices which mediators employ to promote these transformative goals. The essay concludes with a brief discussion of the usefulness of the authors' work in describing these practices.

The Goals of Transformative Mediation

Two main goals of transformative mediation are to empower the disputing parties, and to enhance each party's recognition of the other. Recognition and empowerment are then key concepts in the theory of transformative mediation. To empower the disputing parties, the mediator seeks to "strengthen people's capacity to analyze situations and make effective decisions for themselves." [p. 264] Successful mediation should enhance the parties' capacity for self- determination. By supporting recognition, the mediator seeks to "strengthen people's capacity to see and consider the perspectives of others." [p. 264] Transformative mediation tries to enhance each party's responsiveness to others.

These goals reflect two basic premises of transformative mediation theory. First, the authors claim that mediation is more than just a tool for settling disputes. Mediation has the potential to produce valuable transformations in the character of the participants. That is, participation in the mediation process has the potential to make individuals more empowered and responsive to others. Second, the authors claim that this transformative potential can best be realized by mediators who use certain attitudes and practices to guide the mediation process.. The authors refer to these attitudes and practices as "hallmarks" of the transformative approach to mediation. The body of this articles is then devoted to describing ten of these "hallmarks" in greater detail.

Hallmarks of Transformative Practice

One hallmark of effective transformative mediation is that the mediator describes her role and objectives in terms of empowerment and recognition. In his opening statement, the mediator should explain that his task is to help the parties reach a clearer understanding of their own interests and options, and, if they so choose, to reach a better understanding of their opponent. Settlement is presented as one possible outcome of the mediation process. However, reaching a settlement is not presented as the most important goal of mediation. A successful session is described as one which produces improved understanding or more clarity.

Mediators using the transformative approach to mediation will also stress that responsibility for the outcome of the mediation process lies with the parties. The mediator should seek to be responsive rather than directive. This attitude will serve both to empower the parties, and to keep the mediator's attention focused on the transformative task. Within the transformative approach, the mediator is responsible for identifying opportunities for recognition and empowerment, and for helping the parties to seize such opportunities. Refusing responsibility for outcomes, and placing responsibility for decisions firmly with the disputing parties, supports their sense of, and capacity for, self-determination.

In a related attitude, the transformative mediator must consciously refuse to be judgmental about the parties' views and decisions. This attitude will again reinforce the parties' sense of responsibility. It is not, of course, possible for the mediator to refrain entirely from forming judgements about the parties' views and decisions. However, the mediator who pursues the transformative approach will keep her own limitations in mind; as a third-party she cannot know more about the situation than the parties who are actually embroiled in it.

The transformative process will be furthered if the mediator takes an optimistic view of the parties' competence and motives. This view will help the mediator maintain the attitudes discussed above. If the mediator believes that the parties are incompetent or malicious, the temptation to intervene and assume responsibility for the outcome would be stronger. Also, seeing the parties as good people caught in a difficult circumstance supports the mediator's motivation to identify and point out opportunities for recognition and empowerment.

In transformative practice, the mediator allows the parties to express their emotions, and responds to those expressions of emotion. Emotions often reveal unarticulated fears or beliefs: frustration may be a response to uncertainty, anger may reveal misunderstanding. By encouraging the parties to look for the source of their feelings, the mediator may identify further opportunities to encourage empowerment or recognition.

For similar reasons, parties' discussion of past events should be supported and encouraged. Discussions of the parties' history reveals the basis for their present understandings and views. Reviewing the past often creates opportunities for parties to reconsider their present views, and to then improve their recognition of each other. Careful consideration of the parties' own pasts can yield clearer self-understandings. Such clarified understandings are empowering.

In a similar vein, the transformative mediator should accept and help to explore the parties' uncertainties. Uncertainty or unclarity on the parties' part presents an immediate opportunity for empowerment. However, effective transformative practice requires the mediator to allow the parties to explore their own confusion for themselves. Patience and tolerance of ambiguity will be helpful attitudes for the mediator to cultivate.

Effective transformative mediation requires the mediator to stay closely focused on the presently occurring conflict interaction. The mediator should not seek a distanced overview of the problem during the mediation session. Such a view would tend to support a more directive, solution-oriented approach to mediation. Rather, the mediator should focus on the specific statements of the parties within the mediation session. By paying close attention to the flow of conversation, the mediator may locate precisely points of confusion or misunderstanding, and hence identify opportunities for empowerment or recognition.

This close focus within the mediation itself should be balanced by a long-range view of conflict generally. The mediator should view her intervention as simply one moment in an ongoing process of conflict. She must recognize that the disputants' interaction precedes the mediation intervention, and that some form of interaction will continue after the intervention has ended. Taking a long-range view of conflicts in general will help the mediator to maintain her awareness of the limitations of any one intervention. Maintaining this view is also crucial in helping the mediator to avoid adopting a more directive approach, and to avoid becoming foucused on the goal of settlement.

Finally, in order to maintain energy and motivation, the mediator must learn to feel and share with the parties a sense of success whenever empowerment and recognition occur, and even if they only occur in small degrees. Transformative mediators recognize first, that empowerment and recognition are valuable in themselves. Secondly, they recognize that agreements and settlements are generally only durable when they made by empowered, responsive parties. Mediators who adopt a transformative practice must then also adopt the motto, "Small steps count."[p. 275]

Uses for the Hallmarks

The authors observe that these hallmarks of effective transformative mediation practice will be useful tools for training mediators in the transformative approach. They may also be of help in developing transformation-oriented performance and evaluation criteria. Such criteria will be needed if transformative mediation is to be a viable alternative to the presently more common settlement-oriented approach.

Review of these practices and attitudes also refutes a common (albeit mistaken) criticism of transformative mediation. Critics have charged that the transformative approach requires the mediator to take an active role in directing and reshaping the parties' characters. These descriptions of transformative practices make it clear that the mediator is to play no such role. While a character transformation is a hoped-for effect of the mediation process, the mediator's role is strictly reactive and supportive. When successful, the parties transform themselves.

Finally, these patterns of practice may be used to explore the extent to which transformative mediation is already in use. The authors report finding transformative elements in areas as diverse as environmental mediation, international conflict management, and corporate team-building efforts.