The Aternative Newsletter Editor,
Robert Kirkman Collins
Jossey-Bass, 2000, 261 pp.,
This is a flawed, but nevertheless useful, book on mediation. It’s premise is theoretically sound, in seeking to apply therapeutic techniques to destabilize repetitious (and unproductive) patterns of interaction by altering each participant’s views of history (their “narratives”). No one would doubt that mediators need to wean people from their fixed notions of history and a firm sense of entitlement if progress is to be made; there is less of a consensus, however, that this should be the primary focus of mediation.
There is much common-sense guidance offered here by two obviously skilled practitioners: avoiding attempts to solve problems until a relationship of trust has been built with the mediator; damping the perceptions of imbalance when having the first party give an “opening” statement; outlining questioning techniques to help people shift from fixed positions of entitlement; and, providing tips for the use of caucus.
The essential difficulty is that the authors approach healing the interpersonal relationship and solving the problem as two separate and distinct stages in mediation — with the emphasis only on the first. In fact, in many ways the process outlined in Narrative Mediation is more appropriately one for use in therapy (from whence it came) than in mediation. The authors preach that “Sometimes the development of an attitude of cooperation and respect may be more important that any substantive agreement”, but practice as if that were true in each and every case: “When the mediation has reached the point with [the participants] when a degree of goodwill and respect are present, the largest part of the mediation has been accomplished”. No — we pragmatists might respond — that’s simply when the mediation can begin. While it may be necessary to achieve some initial shifts in the parties’ perceptions of themselves and the problem in order to get down to work, the goal should not be to shift understanding as an end in itself, but simply as a step towards resolution of the conflict.
A more minor, but nevertheless annoying, tendency of the authors is to constantly present the simple in grandiose terms. Labeling favored mediation moves as “postmodern” or “poststructuralist” doesn’t necessarily make them any more innovative or useful than they actually are — it seems pretentious, and only serves to distract.
One puts this book down with the disquieting feeling that the authors were hoping to found yet another school of anti-pragmatic mediation in the tradition of the “transformative” mediation movement; what they have given us is a less grand, albeit still useful, volume.