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Mediation & Arbitration Are The Same

by Jeff Thompson
July 2012

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    Jeff Thompson

    According to a recent New York Times- "the newspaper of record"- mediation and arbitration are one in the same. I came across this information on the very popular and very informative New York Dispute Resolution Community Listserv. The listserv as a side note has +2,000 members and is not limited to New York area people.

    Here's the article title and snippet:
    Mediator Halts City’s Plan to Overhaul 24 Schools

    9:05 p.m. | Updated An arbitrator on Friday halted a central element of the Bloomberg administration’s plans for closing and reopening 24 schools, saying its method for overhauling the staff at those institutions violated labor contracts.

    The listserv being the listserv, has already generated many comments, one stating:
    My understanding is that the person who writes the article does not write the headline / title. I read misleading headlines all the time. It is the headline writer who made this mistake and hopefully, you can get the NYT to write a correction (not that anyone reads them). Getting a letter to the editor published would reach far more people.

    Another, stated:
    We should take a step back before hauling the Times into language court. It might say its use of “mediator” is not misleading at all. It would be right.

    Of course, “mediation” doesn’t include arbitration under the definition favored in the dispute resolution field. But arbitration does qualify as “mediation” under some current and respectable alternative English definitions. (See, e.g., Encarta World English Dictionary (online): “Mediation. . . . adj. Involving or depending on an intermediary or intermediate action” . . .thesaurus: “Meanings: Arbitration (n).” See also The American Heritage Dictionary: “Mediation. . . . [Acting through, involving or dependent upon some intervening agency” . . . Synonyms: . . . “arbitration”.)

    We could prefer that the Times use the word as we do. But we can’t fairly accuse it of misleading when its usage is linguistically correct, even if it doesn’t align with our preference.

    My response to the above comment is saying rain and hail are the same. According to's thesaurus they are synonyms so is alright to interchange the two? It lists under synonyms for rain the following words (but not limited to): rainstorm, monsoon, sleet, heavy dew, hail, flurry, pouring, sprinkling and cloudburst.

    Would anyone here freely interchange the two- specifically in an academic paper or article?

    If that is the case, why use any of theses words at all: mediation, conflict coaching, negotiation, or arbitration? We might as well just pick one since they are all forms of ADR, right?

    Obviously I am joking (note I am not using a pun, parody, mummery, hoodwinking, sport, horseplay, or using a one-liner yet all are listed as synonyms), but to defend the use of mediation in the title when it clearly means arbitration only contributes to confusion.

    At least I think so.


    Jeff Thompson, Ph.D., is a professor at Lipscomb University, researcher, mediator, and trainer. He is also involved in crisis and hostage negotiation as well as a law enforcement detective. His research includes law enforcement crisis and hostage negotiation in terrorist incidents. He received his doctorate from Griffith University Law School having researched the impact nonverbal communication has in conflict situations with respect to developing rapport, building trust, and displaying professionalism.

    Dr. Thompson has presented and trained on the topic of conflict, mediation, (crisis and hostage) negotiation, communication and nonverbal communication internationally for a variety of audiences including police personnel, government officials, judges, attorneys, physicians, sales people, business professionals, and both graduate and undergraduate students. He has also been published in numerous professional and academic publications.

    He is the co-chair of ACR's national Crisis Negotiation Section, and he is an ad-hoc reviewer for multiple academic journals. He received his MS in Negotiation and Dispute Resolution from the Werner Institute, Creighton University School of Law.

    (All posts by Jeff Thompson represent his personal reflections and opinions and not that of any organization.)

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