I estimate it took me 5 years of trying until I fully embraced the transformative perspective. I had started out mediating by assuming my job was to uncover underlying interests, then help both sides figure out how to get as much of what they wanted as possible, and help them accept that they couldn’t get everything they wanted. When I started mediating, I saw hostility and distrust between the parties as impediments to a solution, but they didn’t hold much interest beyond that. Now that I see things from the transformative perspective, that hostility and distrust are where the action is.
To help clarify this change of focus, I’ll walk through how we explore it in transformative mediation trainings. In our basic mediation courses, we start by asking participants to think back to the worst conflict they’ve been involved in, to focus on the worst moment of that conflict, and to describe what was so bad about that worst moment. Common answers include that they felt powerless, out-of-control, overwhelmed, less competent than usual, as if they were talking to a brick wall, misunderstood, and shocked that the other person could act this way.
From there we distill those experiences down to their essences. We say that many of the words used, such as powerless, out-of-control, overwhelmed, and less competent, can be understood as variations on a sense of relative “weakness” – and we say that such concepts as brick wall, misunderstood, and shocked at the other’s behavior can be distilled down to “self-absorption”. (Self-absorption is always hard for people to cop to – so we point out that when one is feeling weak and vulnerable it’s entirely understandable that one would be less able to empathize, less understanding, and less compassionate. It’s natural that, compared to our usual state, we’re self-absorbed at those worst moments.).
Next we describe the vicious cycle that these experiences create within us. We notice that in those worst conflict moments we don’t know what to do, so we focus intensely on that, as we focus on that, we remain less able to pay attention to or understand the other person, as we continue to deal with this person we don’t understand, we feel weaker than ever, and so on. And when you add to the mix that the other person may be caught in the same vicious cycle, a vivid picture emerges of what we call the “Destructive Conflict Cycle”. I suggest that we’re all familiar with examples of the Destructive Cycle in our own lives, and we’re aware of extreme examples in stories of litigation that costs far more than either side can hope to gain, in suicide bombings, and in murder-suicides. In all of these stories, the desperate efforts to regain a sense of power can destroy both the other party and oneself.
From there we talk about what an improvement to that Destructive Cycle would look like. We say that a sense of strength would be an improvement over a sense of weakness. And, on the other side of the equation, the ability to be responsive to the other party would be an improvement over being self-absorbed (sometimes participants object, saying that when the other party is pure evil, responsiveness is not an improvement – to which we reply that, at the very least, it’s preferable to be able to deal with evil effectively, as opposed to in a way that only hurts ourselves – in extreme cases, responsiveness may mean clarity that we need to end our dealings with the other party – in other cases it may turn out that the other side wasn’t quite as evil as they seemed). We call the movement from weakness to strength the Empowerment Shift; and we call the progress from self-absorption to responsiveness the Recognition Shift.
The next step in the training is to gain a deeper grasp of what empowerment shifts and recognition shifts look like. Often by observing a transformative mediation demonstration, we see parties become calmer and clearer (Empowerment Shift) and we see them turn toward each other and genuinely listen (Recognition Shift). We notice that Empowerment Shifts can manifest themselves in clearer articulation of needs, in a new idea emerging, or in focusing on a new topic that seems important. We see that Recognition Shifts take the form of acknowledging some truth in the other party’s perspective, in offering suggestions that address the other party’s concerns, in expressing appreciation of the other party, and in proposing viable solutions.
Once we’ve become clear about what these shifts look like; and once we’ve gained confidence that these sorts of shifts can and do happen, we turn our attention to how a mediator can be most helpful in facilitating them.