Trina Grillo, "Respecting the Struggle: Following the Parties' Lead,"

Mediation Quarterly 13:4 (Summer 1996), pp.279-286.

Summary by Tanya Glaser.

Copyright 1997 by the Conflict Research Consortium


Trina Grillo explores the elements of transformative practice in the context of divorce mediation. Like Folger and Bush, Grillo argues that mediators should take a reactive rather than directive stance. She also emphasizes that for effective transformative practice the mediator should focus on fostering empowerment and recognition, disavow responsibility for the outcome, support the expression of emotions, and take an optimistic and non-judgmental attitude toward the parties. Grillo, however, locates the defining characteristic of transformative mediation in the mediator's "respect for the parties and...attitude of genuine inquiry." [p. 280]

In this essay, Grillo discusses ways for the mediator to express respect for the parties' personal struggles as they engage in the mediation process. Grillo describes the importance of expressing and acknowledging the parties emotions. She then discusses her approach to issues of fairness and blame within the divorce mediation setting.

Acknowledging Anger and Resistance

There is a cultural tendency, often shared by both mediators and disputants, to see anger as irrational, bad, and immature. Often mediation practice encourages the suppression of parties' negative emotions, or at least rewards the suppression of such feelings. Grillo notes that women may be especially susceptible to cultural pressures to deny their anger.

Grillo opposes this tendency. She argues that anger, while powerful, need not be dangerous or destructive. By exploring their anger, parties may develop a better understanding of their own selves, and of their own wants and needs. Repressing such emotions thus blocks a key route to empowerment and improved self-understanding. Moreover, better self-understanding may pave the way for improved recognition of and openness toward the other party's wants and needs.

While transformative mediation practice should support the exploration of strong emotions, it should not encourage uncontrolled venting. The mediator should encourage the party to "pay careful attention to [her anger], to contemplate it with a spirit of inquiry and openness to its power and its force." [p. 281] In her own mediation practice, Grillo has found that it is most helpful to explore a party's anger in the presence of the other party. Thus both parties are reassured that anger in general can be safely expressed and addressed.

The transformative mediator should also respect parties' resistance, and should not attempt to force a timetable or agenda on the parties. Resistance often reflects a party's own sense of timing, and may indicate that the party is unready to address certain issues.

Addressing Principles, Blame and Fairness

Grillo recommends taking a very concrete approach to fairness. Rather than pursuing a legalistic or abstract principle of fairness, she encourages the parties to first consider their own needs carefully and fully. Grillo finds that, "once [the parties] have permission to think of themselves, it is much easier for them to incorporate the needs of the spouse and children." [p. 284] Thus by focusing on needs rather than on abstract concepts of fairness, the mediator encourages better self-understanding and recognition of the other.

Although Grillo's transformative practice de-emphasizes abstract principles of fairness, discussion of principles remains an important part of the mediation process. The mediator should assist the parties in clarifying their own principles and values, and in locating areas of agreement and disagreement. Shared principles may then provide a basis for further agreements.

Unlike many mediators, Grillo supports blaming within the mediation process. Blame reflects a party's sense of the other's failed responsibility. Airing and exploring such blame is often the key to identifying parties' basic principles. Exploring blame is also often helpful in promoting recognition. Simply venting blame may alienate the other party. However, better understanding of the principles underlying the blame allows the other party to acknowledge and respond to the aggrieved party.