Looking Behind the Curtain

The sub-title of Steven Pinker’s 2002 book, The Blank Slate, is “The Modern Denial of Human Nature”. In it Pinker argues that by rejecting human nature and embracing the notion of “The Blank Slate” (the mind has no innate traits), we deny

“our humanity and our individual preferences, replace[s] hard headed analyses of social problems with feel good slogans, and distort[s] our understanding of government, violence, parenting, and the arts.”

In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in “conflict resolution” and a proliferation of programs offering certificates and academic degrees in the field. Unfortunately, the mediation business remains largely unaffected by recent advances in neuroscience and biology, even though many of these ideas introduce new and exciting considerations for conflict resolution that go much deeper than conventional analysis.

Pinker argues that many current thinkers have denied the existence of human nature by embracing three linked dogmas: the Blank Slate, the Noble Savage (people are born good and are then corrupted by society,) and the Ghost in the Machine (each of us has a soul that makes choices free from biology.) Nowhere is that embrace stronger and more prominently on display than in the field of mediation. Does your mediator think you are misbehaving, that you are a good or a bad person or that you are simply a product of your environment? As a result, and not surprisingly, the field of mediation is failing to realize its great potential, even though it has its foot in the (court room) door.

The central questions that I think need to frame the discussion about training mediators should include:

Are mediators taught the skills necessary to understand human behavior in conflict?
Are mediators taught techniques that actually help resolve conflict, i.e. are the techniques widely used by mediators subjected to scientific evaluation to validate their efficacy?
Is there an incentive to experiment with new techniques?
Are there resources for mediators to acquire new insights into understanding the nature of conflicts they are asked to help resolve?
Does the ethical framework under which mediators operate encourage mediator behavior that advances peacemaking?

Some of the topics that are NOT included in the current mandated training program for mediators:

Game Theory
The Art of Teaching
Negotiation Theory
Biology and Human Behavior

The mediation profession has every reason to encourage and engage in a systematic and ongoing study of what it does. Do mediators have the training to evaluate what others are doing in a mediation or are they left to see conflict only through their own personal experiences? What do we do that works and what we do that does not work? Why is it impossible to construct a method for studying what goes on in a real mediation while protecting privacy and confidentiality?

Doctors study medicine, lawyers study the law, but what, exactly, do mediators study?


Roger Benson

Roger C. Benson began mediating in 1989 and has been doing so fulltime since 1998. He has been a lawyer since 1973. He has mediated a great many cases involving a broad range of issues. He is a primary trainer in Florida’s 40 hour Supreme Court mediator certification program. He is… MORE >

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