Five years ago I was a founder of an organization that illustrates how I see the mediation field evolving. The Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation was created in 1999 to provide resources and assistance for those using the transformative approach to conflict intervention. It emerged from the network of practitioners and researchers who expressed interest in developing the transformative framework shortly after the publication of The Promise of Mediation. Through the support of the Hewlett and Surdna Foundations, those interested in developing the model completed a series of projects that helped translate transformative theory into a range of practice initiatives . This group’s work on a series of projects (including the development of the REDRESS mediation program for the US Postal service), brought the Institute to its current state – a vibrant core network of over fifty people who are actively involved in developing, implementing, and researching the transformative approach to conflict intervention. The larger network includes hundreds of others working to put transformative mediation into practice and who attend training and symposia held by the Institute.
The emergence of the Institute and organizations like it suggest that the field is in an important transitional stage. There are now diverse organizations that work from different ideological premises and develop models of conflict intervention that are based on different core premises. In the case of the Institute, the goal is to develop effective ways to enact relational premises in the practice of mediation and conflict intervention. Although some see the emergence of ideologically based organizations as a controversial development, many find it a healthy, and perhaps inevitable, evolution in the field. It is a development that parallels one that has occurred in the history of other human service fields. For example, the field of therapy experienced a similar transition in the 1960’s and 70’s when practitioners began developing systems approaches to therapy that were fundamentally different from traditional psychodynamic models. Systems approaches were grounded in very different premises and led to alternative training and practice. The emerging models of practice were honed in a few think-tank groups and organizations, the most notable of which was the one in Palo Alto CA that drew heavily on the work of Gregory Bateson. The creation of alternative forms of practice in therapy eventually brought that field to its present diverse state, where practitioners work from a range of diverse models for practice.
As the field moves through this transitional period, the Institute is currently making contributions in three primary areas:
The Institute’s projects provide opportunities to translate transformative theory into various practice initiatives and to conduct descriptive and comparative research on conflict intervention processes. The Institute is a place where mediators, program administrators and researchers nurture and develop transformative practice and disseminate resources to the field and the general public. In recent years, the Institute has sponsored 5 regional symposia that were hosted by university law school programs at Hamline, Hofstra, Peppedine, Baltimore, and South Texas College of Law. The first international symposium will be held this summer in Denmark, co-sponsored by the University of Aalborg. These symposia have allowed groups of scholars and practitioners to focus on and discuss a variety of topics related to transformative work, including training methodology, assessment and certification processes, and the implementation in workplace settings. The Institute will sponsor the first national conference on transformative practice this November in Philadelphia. The symposia, and national conference are events where networks of practitioners are built, cutting edge developments are disseminated and agendas for future projects are set.
There are now fundamental choices practitioners can make about how they want to do their work. Some of the Institute’s projects help to clarify the premises on which various approaches to practice are built. Such clarification is important in supporting practitioners as they decide which approach to practice best suits them and is most consistent with their expectations for productive conflict intervention. The Institute supports research that articulates these differences, compares possible uses of various models, and documents the outcomes and impacts of alternative forms of practice. In the long term, this work can assist the field in aligning purpose with practice — achieving consistency between underlying premises and the forms of practice that flow from them. It also can help to address difficult policy issues (such as assessment and certification criteria) that have persisted because underlying differences in practice have not been adequately clarified.
The mediation field needs to continuously monitor whether its services resonate with diverse populations of people who seek assistance in working through difficult conflicts. Without attention to those who rely on our work, the claim that the field over-emphasizes supply (we do a lot of training) but ignores demand (we fail to build markets for our practice), is a valid and significant criticism. The creation and articulation of alternative models of intervention can offer valuable services to people and institutions who may not have perceived the utility of traditional forms of practice. It is easy to forget how some transactional models of practice have been shaped by the demands of the institutional setting in which they have been used. This institutionalization has, in some instances, limited rather than expanded the appeal of our work. The transformative model of practice has resonated with some client populations that were not comfortable with prevailing approaches to mediation and third party practice. The creation of alternative approaches to practice can “enlarge the pie” for the entire field, building a much wider range of professional service opportunities in a broader array of institutional settings. The Institute’s work with the US Postal Service and other organizational conflict intervention initiatives have demonstrated how alternative forms of practice can enhance the demand for conflict intervention services.
The mediation field is currently under increased strain as several longstanding funders have shifted their priorities. This pressure from external influences can have a negative impact on the internal dynamics of the field and those who lead it. Organizational research has taught us that when resources shrink, internal conflicts can easily intensify. We need to guard against this tendency by counteracting the impulse to marginalize or deride different approaches to practice, or to falsely insist that all practice is, or should be, the same. As a field, we need to find ways to accept and live comfortably with difference, rather than assuming that common ground must be found that links all forms of practice. In facing this challenge, it may be useful for the mediation field to follow the path that the therapy field has taken. Once our models are well developed and studied, we can offer a range of useful approaches to practice to clients who may value both the quality and diversity of services our field offers.
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