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Elements of Style: The What, Why & How of Transformative Peer Mediation

by Lisa Hershman
September 2007 Lisa  Hershman

The recently released, second edition of “Recommended Standards for School-Based Peer Mediation Programs” (Standards) is a notable accomplishment (Association for Conflict Resolution [ACR], 2007). It compiles years of research, developments, and practical knowledge into a comprehensive, easy to read document that is certain to stimulate further development in the field. This is important to note because there is still much work to be done.

Over the next decade, it is my guess that the dialogue over mediation style, currently simmering in the adult mediation community, will extend into the peer mediation field. Right now, one thing is clear: We are not there yet. While the Standards acknowledge that styles other than problem-solving mediation exist, “problem-solving/facilitative” mediation is the touchstone of the entire document (ACR, 2007, p. 14). This is not surprising. There are virtually no articles, books, or training manuals that follow a different model in peer mediation. Problem-solving has become the gold standard by default.

This article is intended for program coordinators, trainers, and funders who are interested in exploring different approaches to peer mediation. It is the first in a three-part series. This article tackles the question: Why choose a transformative model of peer mediation? The second and third, respectively, will look at: How to train students in the transformative approach and What to expect from a transformative peer mediation program.

This series focuses on distinguishing transformative peer mediation from the traditional, problem-solving approach. This is not to say that other styles of peer mediation are not possible or are not currently flourishing elsewhere, but this is simply beyond the scope of my own knowledge and experience. What I do know is that the style of mediation used in a peer mediation program should be a conscious decision, and not a passive acceptance. These articles are my contribution to a more reasoned and thoughtful approach to school-based peer mediation.

WHY GO TRANSFORMATIVE?

Purpose drives practice. This is a major principle of transformative mediation. In truth, though, it lies at the heart of nearly every successful human endeavor. So how does this apply to peer mediation? No matter what style of mediation a program chooses to use – problem-solving, facilitative, evaluative, transformative, narrative – it is essential to know why the choice was made. In my experience, understanding why boils down to recognizing differences on three key points: 1) the meaning of conflict; 2) the definition of help; and 3) the degree of confidence in the parties.

The Meaning of Conflict

What is this thing called conflict and what about it matters most to the people involved (Bush & Folger, 2005)? Peer mediation programs using a problem-solving approach consider conflict to be a result of unmet interests and needs. These programs believe that what affects children most about conflict is their inability to meet their goals.

Consider this simple example:

Billy and Tanya are fourth grade students who get into an argument over whose turn it is to use the class computer. The teacher refers them to mediation.

As always, there is more to this story: Billy wants to use the computer so that he can complete his assignment on time because he needs to receive a good grade. Tanya wants to use the computer because she has been working hard all morning and needs to take a break. Problem-solving peer mediation programs would view this scenario as a conflict of interests – Billy’s need to get a good grade vs. Tanya’s need for a break. A peer mediator would assist Billy and Tanya in finding a way that they could both use the computer and satisfy their needs.

Transformative peer mediation programs take a different view of conflict: Conflict is about relationships. Instead of focusing on individual interests and needs, transformative mediators see conflict as a “crisis of deterioration in human interaction” (Bush & Folger, 2005, p. 46). Conflict is a sudden change in the way people usually – and prefer to – relate to each other. What affects people most about conflict is the way it leads them to behave and feel.

In the example above, if a transformative peer mediator were to let the parties fully explain how the conflict impacted them, he or she might hear that Billy has a good relationship with Tanya, but this incident caused him to snap at her and lose his temper. This is not what Billy intended and it upsets him because it is not the way he usually acts. Similarly, Tanya might reveal that she did not know how to handle Billy’s hostility toward her and felt embarrassed that the outburst occurred in front of the entire class.

A transformative mediator would give Billy and Tanya the opportunity to talk about these feelings, if they wanted to do so. By focusing on the relationship, transformative peer mediation allows the conflict experience and the mediation to belong to the parties. If an agreement is reached, what is important is that it has meaning to the parties. Needs, interests, and goals are often filtered through the lens of an outside observer. Meaning is something that only the parties themselves can truly know.

The Definition of Help

Mediators, no matter what style they use, intervene to help when people are experiencing a conflict. The kind of help they provide depends on what it is they believe the parties desire (Bush & Folger, 2005). Problem-solving mediators tend to believe that people in a conflict want a mediator to provide a procedure that is likely to lead to an acceptable solution. Accordingly, problem-solving mediators often refer to their role as “controlling the process” of the mediation, while the parties control the outcome.

In problem-solving peer mediation programs, mediators help by leading the parties through a multi-step negotiation procedure. The peer mediator “listens to both sides and helps the disputants move effectively through each step of the problem-solving negotiation sequence” (Johnson & Johnson, 2005, p. 1:5). If the negotiation is successful, it will produce an agreement that both parties believe is “fair, just, and workable” (Johnson & Johnson, 2005, p. 1:5).

On the other hand, transformative mediators believe that people seek out mediation because the experience of conflict can be negative and alienating. Transformative mediators help by supporting the parties’ efforts to change their negative experience of conflict into one that is positive, or at least neutral. Transformative mediators do not look to control the process or the outcome of the mediation. The parties decide what happens, how it happens, where it goes, and when it ends. The mediator’s role is to help bring closure to the conflict experience, so that the people involved can get past it and move on.

Take the following mediation, which was handled by a transformative peer mediator:

Two third grade students, Jonathan and Samantha, started arguing on the playground. Their afterschool counselor asked one of the peer mediators in her class to mediate the dispute. Jonathan and Samantha agreed to mediation. At the start of the mediation, both children were crying – not because they were hurt physically, but because they were injured emotionally. Jonathan explained that they were playing the game Sharks and Fishes with a few other classmates. Jonathan was a shark and tagged Samantha, a fish. Jonathan thought that this meant that Samantha had to sit down, because she was out. But Samantha did not sit down. Instead, she tagged Jonathan, yelling, “You’re a shark! You’re a shark!” Confused, Jonathan started yelling back at her. Then the counselor intervened. Once the children recounted what happened during the mediation, it was clear to them that there was a misunderstanding of the rules. Samantha then turned to the mediator and asked, “OK, so now what?” Jonathan asked if they could go back to playing. The mediator checked it out with Samantha and the two ran off in different directions. [ This vignette is based on a mediation that I observed as coordinator of the Peace from A to Z (PAZ) Peer Mediation Program.]

This mediation contained no formal negotiation process and very little in the way of brainstorming win-win solutions. Yet, the parties appeared satisfied with the help they received. A problem-solving approach probably would have taken much longer and might have ended in a more formal “solution”, like an apology or shaking hands. In this case, that is not what the parties desired. What Jonathan and Samantha wanted from the mediation was help feeling better and getting back to what they were doing. Whether or not the children “made up” and reestablished their friendship was beyond the scope of the mediation, because the parties did not initiate it. By listening closely and following their lead, the mediator was able to support Jonathan and Samantha’s attempt to bring closure to their negative experience of conflict.

The Degree of Confidence in the Parties

It is generally regarded as good practice to embed a peer mediation program within a school-wide effort to educate children and staff in conflict resolution skills. However, even if a peer mediation program is not part of a broader conflict resolution curriculum, confidence in the parties is an essential element for success. If students are to be empowered to manage their own conflicts, staff must trust that they are able to do so.

Many peer mediation programs are implemented as part of a disciplinary system or violence prevention project. The thinking goes like this: Peer mediation allows students to monitor themselves. This promotes self-regulation and empowerment. From this freedom, students gain a sense of responsibility. The school then becomes a safer and more productive place to learn (Johnson & Johnson, 2005).

This is the foundation of problem-solving peer mediation. Where these programs must be careful, however, is in drawing the line between mediators and disciplinarians. For some students, particularly those in the early grades of elementary school, understanding this difference is difficult. Children can have trouble distinguishing between helping and judging. At this age, a multi-step problem-solving negotiation model is liable to add to this confusion.

In my experience, children using a problem-solving approach fall into the same traps as adults. Student mediators tend to become controlling and directive. They may force parties to follow a predetermined agenda, even if the parties do not understand or are not ready to do so. Most disturbingly, adults involved with these peer mediation programs often do not intervene to stop this from happening. This may be because they feel that the mediators are “doing their job”. Another reason might stem from the disciplinary nature of the program: If the students couldn’t handle the conflict by themselves before, why would they be able to do so now? This lack of confidence in the parties undermines the basic principles of mediation and makes it less likely that students will be empowered to manage their disputes constructively.

Transformative mediation, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with the human element of conflict. The model is based on a “relational worldview” (Bush & Folger, 2005): People of all ages have a natural desire to interact with others. It is through these interactions that people are able to develop a stronger sense of themselves and a greater understanding of how to function as part of a larger society. From an individual point of view, one of the most disturbing aspects of conflict is its effect on a person’s natural impulse to connect with others. Conflict can cause people to feel “cut off”, leaving them feeling weak and alienated as a result.

Conflict resolution is about supporting people’s desire to connect with others, but in a way that does not compromise their individual identity. For school-based peer mediation programs, the transformative model focuses on allowing children to develop self-confidence and while promoting enhanced perspective-taking skills. By supporting children’s interactions with others, even when they are less than harmonious, transformative peer mediation gives them the opportunity to learn about difference at their own pace and in their own way.

From this standpoint, transformative peer mediation is easily aligned with basic principles of child development: When children enter school, it is often the first time that they are forming relationships with people outside of their immediate family. Interaction with peers is the focus of a school-age child’s development. Through these experiences, children begin to develop self-esteem, empathy, and social competence (Berzoff, Flanagan, & Hertz, 2002). The confidence that transformative peer mediation requires mediators and adult administrators to have in children goes beyond their ability to solve their own problems; it is confidence that all children, as social beings, have a natural capacity to interact with others in a way that promotes individual growth and strengthens the school as a whole.

This confidence is reflected in all aspects of the peer mediation program. Transformative peer mediators have a general framework in which to conduct the mediation, but they do not follow specific steps. Every mediation is different. The students involved in the conflict are encouraged to set their own rules, create their own process, and address their disagreement in whatever way is most comfortable for them. Peer mediators are taught to listen to the parties, follow their lead, and support their decisions along the way. Children’s efforts to explore and learn from others are encouraged during the mediation process. This flexibility gives students the satisfaction of what developmental psychologist Erik Erikson referred to as “making things and making them well” (Berzoff, et al., 2002, p. 113).

CONCLUSION

Purpose drives practice. It brings to mind the Nietzsche quote: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” In life, mediation, and the many spaces in between, the Why makes the How possible. This article is meant to highlight that connection. It is also intended to deepen and broaden the discussion of what is possible in the peer mediation field. The two next articles in this series will address How to use a transformative approach in a peer mediation program and What to expect from using this approach. My hope is that these three articles, taken together, will help program coordinators, trainers, and funders to make wise and informed decisions about what style of mediation is right for them.

References

Association for Conflict Resolution Education Section. (2007). Recommendations for school-based peer mediation programs (2nd ed.). Retrieved July 29, 2007, from http://www.mediate.com/acreducation.

Berzoff, J., Flanagan, L.M., & Hertz, P. (2002). Inside out and outside in: Psychodynamic clinical theory and practice in contemporary multicultural contexts. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

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

Johnson, D.W., & Johnson, R.T. (2005). Teaching students to be peacemakers (3rd ed.). Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company

Biography


Lisa Hershman, J.D., M.S.W. is a mediator with training in community, parent-child, and custody-visitation mediation. She is a Conflict Resolution Specialist with the Morningside Center Teaching Social Responsibility in New York City. She teaches conflict resolution skills to children in grades 1-5 and manages a peer mediation program for elementary-age students. Lisa is also an adjunct professor at Purchase College, where she teaches Conflict Resolution and Family and the Law.

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