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What's Wrong with Transformative Mediation?

by Donal O’Reardon
August 2016 Donal  O’Reardon

What’s Wrong with “Transformative” Mediation?

“Transformative” mediation has grown in popularity in recent years. It’s a style of mediation that looks to “transform” the relationship between the parties in a conflict. Robert Bush and Joseph Folger have been instrumental in advancing it, particularly in their book “The Promise of Mediation”. But there are some problems with it and this article looks at some of them.

I Impatience with Emotional Discomfort

Bush and Folger suggest that people are uncomfortable with conflict as it cuts them off from their “core” or “basic human identity” (2005, 61). It “alienates them from their sense of their own strength and their sense of connection to others” (2005, 46). This is because, as they say elsewhere, conflict can cause self-absorption and a sense of personal weakness (2005, 49).

But why should feeling uncomfortable in conflict necessarily entail a sense of weakness or disempowerment? Staying with the emotional discomfort can help point to the cause of a conflict. Emotional pain may also be a consequence of upheaval and change which in themselves are healthy. Perhaps the person is in emotional discomfort because they have spoken up for themselves and stopped a vicious circle of victimhood and blame. And perhaps this speaking up has caused them pain and discomfort because it is unfamiliar. To put it simply, emotional discomfort may not be something that needs to be fixed because it is not a sign that something is wrong.

II A Negative View of Control

Bush and Folger are rightly sceptical of interest-based or settlement oriented approaches to mediation for focusing exclusively on the prize of the settlement and the accompanying (and sometimes morally hair-raising) tactics deployed towards this end (2005, 104). However, they then choose to link this to what they diagnose as a kind of social pathology concerning the need for control; “we believe it makes sense to see a connection between settlement-oriented mediation and the larger ideology of social separation and conflict control” (2005, 247).

But why are they so down on control? Let’s think of sub-personality theory for a moment. In it we learn that the human person can helpfully be described as a multiplicity of voices or “sub-personalities”. Ken Wilber describes these as “functional self-preservations that navigate particular psychosocial situations” (2000, 101). Everybody has these sub-personalities (controller, sceptic, protector, achiever and so on) and all do an important job. The voice of control is also a sub-personality and, like all the others, is in itself an entirely healthy one. In demonising control without any mitigating caveats, Bush and Folger disenfranchise both the active self and the broader culture from an important and healthy resource. In criticising the desire to control, they are criticising very healthy aspects of the human personality.

III Linking Process With Outcome, but Not Linking their Origins

The transformative perspective links “process” and “outcome” (2005, 153). It sees a connection between how mediation is done and what is agreed. However, it also wants to separate the communication from the psychological elements of a resolution. “The model is essentially a communication-based, rather than a psychological approach to practice” (2005, 233). But you can’t do both of these things at the same time. This is because the process parties use for conflict resolution is chosen through communication. And the outcome will be seen as successful by them for psychological reasons (the outcome will conform to their values, attitudes, emotions and so on). So, if you link process with outcome you are also linking communication with psychology.

Saying that process and outcome should go together, but putting a block between how the process is chosen (through shared communication) and the criteria of acceptability of the outcome (our values, attitudes and emotions, all from the realm of psychology) is contradictory and leaves the architects of the transformative approach with a theoretically unfinished story.

IV The “Relational” View of Human Nature

Bush and Folger are committed to a particular view of human nature which they term the “relational” view. They cite important names such as Michael Sandel in philosophy, Amitai Etzioni in political science and Carol Gilligan in psychology to support it. The relational view, they suggest, seeks to overcome the old tension between our individual identity and our place in community or, to reframe it, between our tendencies towards autonomy on the one hand and towards solidarity on the other. The relational view amounts essentially to a “communitarian” approach that emphasises our network of relations with others. But their discussion of this background of support for a “relational” view of human nature comes nowhere near the level required for a proper defence.

In “relation”, we try to combine the various elements of human nature to achieve some degree of harmony, either within us or between people. The result is therefore a kind of aggregate. Instead of talking about “relation”, it may be helpful to talk about “integration”. In integration, we don’t try to combine but to synthesise these differences at a higher level of functioning. It is for this reason that many theorists of the transpersonal perspective (Gebser 1985, Wilber 1996) talk about an “integral” world view. They are not interested in bringing the various elements of ourselves together as much as they are in dissolving the seeming contradiction between them at a higher level. In short, Bush and Folger need to think deeper about their use of the word “relational” and how it applies to human nature and conflict.


“Transformative” mediation has made an important contribution to the ongoing conversation about the practice of conflict resolution. I raise my concerns in a spirit of good conversation and healthy exchange, values I know are cherished by practitioners of this approach.   




Originally from Ireland, Donal O'Reardon is a mediator, coach, author and founder of O’Reardon Consulting. He holds graduate degrees in theology and philosophy and specialises in communication and conflict management skills with an emotional intelligence foundation. He is the author of “Introducing Philosophy: Questions and Readings” (Emond Montgomery, 2014) as well as a forthcoming book on best communication practice for professional and personal development.

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