The past ten years have been significant, formative years for transformative mediation. It was just ten years ago that the approach received a name with publication of The Promise of Mediation by Robert A. Baruch Bush and Joseph P. Folger (now revised, 2005). During those ten years, many of us across the United States and in Europe and Japan assisted with the development and understanding of the transformative model. The results of many of those efforts are reported in the revised edition. They have also been showcased in a series of five intensive symposia held by the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation in locations including Minnesota, California, Texas, Maryland and New York. Most recently, last November, a three-day national conference was held in Philadelphia – the first national conference on transformative mediation sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation. James R. Antes reflects on that conference and its implications for the future of mediation in his article . The conference inspired me to go back to consider some basics: the arrangement of furniture as symbolic and supportive of our work.
Mediators have a reputation for moving furniture. It goes with our work. Many groups of mediators can’t sit down for dinner without rearranging the tables and chairs in the restaurant. I’ve been there – and done that. In the mediation room, the arrangement of the table and chairs is important to us, and we will hold forth on the best arrangements, and who should sit where, and why. Interestingly, and surprisingly, we don’t all agree.
Also interesting is that my views have changed over the years. Is it all right for a mediation party to sit off at the side against the wall when everyone else is at the table? What about the party who wants to stand up to present his viewpoint or take over the flip chart and marker that I considered mine? What if everyone wants to stand up, or sit on the floor? No longer do I hold strong views on where the participants sit – or even that they must sit. Entire mediations have taken place with people standing up or sitting on the tables. It is really their choice - when the mediator is transformative. When we have the opportunity to select the nature and arrangement of furniture in advance, it can be helpful as a starting point, but the parties have the final say.
The arrangement of the room is also important for trainings and workshops. The minute someone walks into the space, a message is conveyed about what can happen, and what can’t. Just as in the mediation room, the set-up says something about us and about how we view our role. When presenting my first Academy of Family Mediator’s workshop many years ago, my co-presenter and I had a real disagreement about how to set up the room. The hotel had done its usual job: placing chairs in rows facing a table for the presenters to sit or stand behind. When viewing the room the night before our workshop, which was coming up first thing the next morning, I immediately said we have to rearrange these chairs into a circle! My partner didn’t want to change anything. It was a real difference in how we viewed the role of the presenter and the kinds of interactions we wanted with the group of participants in the workshop.
We settled on keeping the formal, straight lines of chairs for the more formal part of our presentation and asking participants to create a circle for the discussion afterward. We even used our disagreement as an example for discussion in the workshop. By the end of the first day of that conference, all of the workshop rooms in the hotel had been converted to circles. Informal, participatory interactive workshops were the norm at AFM conferences, and the rooms reflected that.
Over the years, I attended a lot of conferences and presented a lot of workshops. Conferences became a major part of my life when I became a member of the board of directors of AFM and then its next-to-last President before the merger creating ACR. One of my duties as president was to attend conferences of many other national and regional mediation organizations, and to accept invitations to speak and present workshops. Conferences always present a wonderful opportunity to network with other mediators and to come away with new ideas and information even after a significant part of a lifetime spent at conferences.
Attending the First National Conference on Transformative Mediation last November brought me back to basics. I was reminded of the significance of room arrangements. That first morning, I was enthralled by the live chamber music being performed and the overflowing buffet breakfast, but when entering the large ballroom for the first plenary session, I was overwhelmed by the statement made by the set-up of the chairs. It is hard to create a discussion circle for more than 300 people, but there it was: a modified circle – a “U” arrangement that said we are here to talk together – not to be lectured. It said to me that this was really going to be something different in the world of conferences, and it was. It was an amazing beginning to an amazing three days.
For more about the conference, its spirit and its implications, see the article by Jim Antes in this section, and, in addition, see the newsletter about the conference and photographs on the web site at transformativemediation.org.