A Nuanced Comparison Of Transformative, Insight And Narrative Mediation

Mediation is defined as “the intervention in a negotiation or a conflict of an acceptable third party who has limited or no authoritative decision-making power, who assists the involved parties to voluntarily reach …a settlement” (Moore, 2003, p.15). Within the broad framework of mediation, there exists an expansive spectrum of styles. Each of these methods highlights various core principles. In fact, several of the fundamental concepts illuminate the differences between the approaches that lie on this spectrum. A primary deviation exists regarding the extent to which a given style is settlement driven. Moreover, the inclusion of facilitative communication through active listening and curiosity characterizes specific styles of mediation. A particular approach or style of mediation may, therefore, be more appropriate depending on the circumstances. There are also, however, numerous similarities among the range of methodologies. The purpose of this paper is to compare and contrast the specific approaches of transformative, insight and narrative mediation. Although these three methods differ in their approaches and applications, they are fundamental to the discipline of mediation as a whole, and contribute to both the improvement of communication and relationships, as well as to the possibility of mutually beneficial settlements.

The field of transformative mediation is clear on its underlying principles: empowerment and recognition. These two foundational concepts lay the groundwork for this approach. Bush and Folger (1996) describe empowerment as the parties’ ability to take control of decision making once they have assumed increased clarity regarding their objectives and preferences. Recognition, however, incorporates the support of the mediator toward these objectives and preferences. The success of transformative mediation lies with the mediator’s capacity to highlight and enact the notion of self-determination and responsiveness, both within and between the parties. Fortunately, research focused on transformative mediation has outlined several concrete characteristics that underpin the practice. Proponents stress that creating a transformative setting is crucial. As a result, the mediator’s opening statement must clarify that the goal of the process will be judged by the level of empowerment and recognition the parties achieve (Bush & Folger). Other transformative hallmarks include: that responsibility lies with the parties; recognition that the parties hold the adequate competence for success themselves; stressing the role of emotions throughout the process; the assumption that one particular mediation is part of a broader relationship; and the importance of the past (Bush & Folger). More importantly, however, this style emphasizes that the role of a mediator is limited to supporting the parties rather than forcing any facet of the intervention or passing any judgment.

Insight mediation, developed in Canada, is defined as “moments when parties begin to understand enough about each other that they cease regarding each other as a threat to cooperation and begin to believe they can…resolve their differences” (Picard & Melchin, p. 38). This discipline proffers that the mediator’s responsibility rests in his/her ability to recognize the real, underlying connotations of the parties’ communications, in order to foster understanding. Insight mediation practitioners have identified five distinct stages of this practice. The first stage highlights the joint establishment of the intervention process itself, which includes ground-rules. In the second stage, Stating Hopes and Problems, the parties state the problem, as well as their respective ‘hopes’ for the mediation. Seeking Insight into Interests, the third stage, is concerned with the more intrinsic aspect of the intervention; assessing the deeper apprehensions among the parties, which have led to the joint feelings of threat. The alleviation of this threat allows the parties to recognize the prospect of cooperation; known as Collaborating to Meet Interests, step four. Finally, in the fifth stage, Making Decisions, self-determination is brought to the forefront (Picard & Melchin). Interestingly, insight is correlated with the ‘a-ha’, ‘eureka’ or ‘light bulb’ experience, referred to as direct insights, where one has an epiphany or realization of cognitive importance (Picard & Melchin). Insight mediation is largely focused on threats; both identifying and deconstructing them, as well as an emphasis on previous experiences as they relate to the threat. Insight mediation offers conflicting parties familiar mediation techniques, with the inclusion of unique skills and tools.

As with many styles of mediation, narrative mediation is a rather recent phenomenon. This particular style concerns itself with both the way in which conflict arises, in addition to methods that can be employed to remedy the relationship. As a practice, “narrative mediation attempts to put aside conflict-laden stories and assist the parties in jointly constructing a new story…that will sustain an ongoing relational dialogue” (Nagao & Page, p. 1). Practitioners suggest that there are three dimensions of this type of mediation: engagement, where parties provide their unilateral story; deconstruction, where the mediator and parties jointly remove the conflict patterns within the respective narratives; and construction, where a distinctive story is assembled (Nagao & Page). In addition to these three dimensions, there are several fundamental aspects required for successful narrative mediation. Effective questioning is integral to the overall process. This strategy not only facilitates communication between the parties, but also solidifies the mediator’s role as one who assists the parties in communicating. Narrative mediation frequently employs probing questions, which both demonstrates the mediator’s curiosity toward the narrator and affords the intervener the ability to explore deeper meanings behind responses (Nagao & Page). Subsequent to the construction dimension, a follow-up is conducted, which allows the mediator to highlight the various successes that transpired during the intervention. This, in turn, demonstrates to the parties the enhanced understanding they now possess.

Transformative, insight and narrative mediation each provide distinct contributions to third party interventions to conflict. There are, however, substantial variations between these three distinct styles. In fact, several of these differences are self-professed by the practitioners within these fields. As suggested above, the foundation of transformative mediation lies with the relevance of the relationship, as well as the parties’ empowerment and recognition. Conversely, the essence of narrative mediation emphasizes the construction of a new narrative, absent of any threatening or conflicting language. Insight mediation, however, focuses on the problem itself, or the threats posed to each party. Proponents of insight mediation argue that both transformative and narrative mediation assume that the “problem is an obstacle to getting to the deeper relationship-related features” (Picard & Melchin, p. 51). Furthermore, those practicing insight mediation believe that transformative mediators avoid probing the problem itself in order to avoid a conflict-ridden stalemate (Picard & Melchin). This seems to be the most apparent disparity among these three methods of mediation.

The measure for success as professed by these schools of thought also deviates somewhat. This difference, however, is much more nuanced than at first thought and can be demonstrated only through the specific inclusion or exclusion of explicit terms within the literature. Although a final agreement in transformative mediation is not the ultimate indicator of success, it remains part of a broader definition of accomplishment. Moreover, a transformative mediator would not consider an agreement a success at the peril of a relationship, but would hope for the parties to reach a mutually beneficial agreement through empowerment and recognition. In fact, empowerment and recognition can “take the form of concrete terms of settlement” (Folger & Bush, 275). Correspondingly, the process of insight mediation includes the “generation of options”, which one can conclude is the integration of a resolution or settlement in some form (Picard and Melchin). Narrative mediation, however, provides increased clarity here. For example, Nagao and Page profess that as opposed to transformative and insight mediation, in narrative mediation, the “agreement is not considered an outcome” (Nagao & Page, p.1). Rather, the relationship and communication are paramount to success. The difference in the extent of the inclusion of a settlement, therefore, is a point of contrast.

The role and flexibility that the mediator assumes in the intervention is an important distinction as well. Both transformative and insight mediation stress the value of the third party adopting a non-judgmental stance in an effort to ensure that the parties are self-determined. The “suspension of judgment” elucidates a core belief of both transformative and insight mediation (Bush & Folger, p.268). Narrative mediation, however, employs an alternative approach. This method is “at time times more directive” because the mediator makes use of his/her expertise in the field (Picard & Melchin, p. 50).

Although transformative, insight and narrative mediation differ in their methods and approach to intervention, similarities are also many. Interestingly, these three approaches are grouped in the shift framework (Lublin & Zarsky). This philosophy dictates that those methodologies that fall within this grouping seek a shift in the relationship in some form or another. This shift may occur in the parties’ view of conflict or a shift in the channels and effectiveness of communication.

Perhaps the most consistent message among these styles concerns the role of communication. The success, regardless of how it is defined or determined, largely rests on the mediator’s capacity to facilitate effective dialogue between the parties. Active listening, which includes strategic questioning, for example, is shared among all three techniques. “Strategic question asking is the key to implementing narrative mediation” (Nagao & Page, p.1). This sentiment is certainly advocated by insight and transformative mediation as well. In addition, the element of curiosity on the part of the third party is a consistent attribute. Moreover, narrative mediators are specifically instructed to demonstrate curiosity through the use of probing questions (Nagao & Page). Similarly, insight and transformative mediators are trained to show curiosity, which allows them to avoid being perceived as judgmental (Picard & Melchin).

The function of emotion as part of the process is a constant theme among these approaches. “There are facts in the feelings”, which indicates that uncovering strong emotions is important to the overall progress of the intervention (Bush & Folger, p. 271). The role of past experiences is also emphasized by each of these styles. In fact, the eighth hallmark in transformative mediation involves encouragement with respect to a discussion of past events, in order to achieve the objectives of the mediation (Bush & Folger). It is therefore apparent, on a deeper assessment, that comparisons between the three disciplines are numerous.

In conclusion, transformative, insight and narrative mediation contribute to the broad practice of third party intervention, albeit through differing frameworks. Each style emphasizes its own set of principles and processes. The prospect of a formal agreement looms larger for some approaches than others. At the core of each, however, lies an insatiable requirement for enhancing communication, thus resulting in improved relationships. The mediation community, and those that make use of it, have much to gain from the emergence of such innovative advancements. It will be interesting to monitor the progress that each method documents, as well as the additional correlations that are uncovered between a specific situation and the particular style of mediation that is implemented most successfully.


Bush, Robert A., & Folger, Joseph P. (1996). Transformative Mediation and Third-Party Intervention. Mediation Quarterly, 13, 4, 263-278.

Lublin, A., & Zarsky, D. (2009, February). Mediation philosophies and approaches, part II. Lecture material, New York, NY.

Moore, Christopher. (2003). The Mediation Process. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Nagao, A. & Page, N. (2005). Narrative Mediation: An exercise in question asking. Mediate.com, 1-5. Retrieved on February 28, 2009, from mediate.com//articles/paheN3.cfm.

Picard, C. & Melchin, K. (2007). Insight Mediation: A learning-centered mediation model. Negotiation Journal, 35-52.


Jason A. Waxman

Jason is currently the lead mediation researcher for BASESwiki (www.baseswiki.org), an online dispute resolution community focused on satiating the information gap concerning the use of non-judicial grievance mechanisms for companies and their external stakeholders. BASESwiki is a project out of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, under mandate… MORE >

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