Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation by Dan Simon
While debriefing immediately after a co-mediation, an interesting question arose: “Does a reflection always have the same function regardless of the context?” Later we further specified the question: “What is the purpose of using reflections at the beginning of the process, when the parties first speak toward the mediator, without yet having had an opportunity to talk to each other?”
Let us start by introducing the context. At the beginning of most mediations, right after the initial conversation, the parties often turn to the mediator(s) and explain their side of the story. These are normally not yet a manifestation of the “here and now” interaction between the parties. At that moment, the mediator has the choice of not reacting at all, relying on the principle that it is their conversation, or using one of the available transformative interventions (presumably reflection or check-in). As explained below, the transformative mediator chooses the best available option based on an understanding of relational (transformative) conflict theory. However, we have noticed that at the beginning of the mediation, we use reflection even before we can determine with certainty that the party turning to a mediator is in fact manifesting their relational weakness or self-absorption.
At the same time, transformative theory tells us that if parties turn to a mediator, they are manifesting their relational weakness. But is that so every time? Why cannot it be that turning to a mediator in the initial stage of a mediation, is a simple acknowledgment of the social context? What if participant’s common understanding is that when he/she approaches an expert he/she is socially bound to tell or explain something to that expert? Does such a social expectation manifest relational weakness or self-absorption?
Transformative theory sometimes gives the impression that a mediation conversation exists in a social vacuum. As if all the reactions of the parties could be interpreted only by applying a filter of relational weakness and self-absorption. However, mediation conversations cannot be separated from the context that preceded them. Some of our reactions and statements are not necessarily motivated from within a person, i.e. from intrapsychic processes associated with relational weakness and self-absorption. Instead, they are a manifestation of the functioning of our social institutions. That is how a greeting, thanking, or small-talk works, for example. The parties’ efforts to explain to a stranger what their situation is about at the beginning of the mediation can be motivated similarly. Thus, such behavior may be motivated by decency – not to leave anyone in the group out of the picture – or a personal need to maintain a conversation with all the people around the table. However, such an impulse is probably not a display of relational weakness or self-absorption in the interaction with respect to the other party.
Conversely, turning to a mediator in the subsequent moments could probably be easily described as an expression of relational weakness. The longer the mediation goes on, the more accurate the interaction filter of relational weakness and self-absorption, as opposed to strength and openness. However, we can recognize this because we already know the appropriate context of the conversation and the parties’ interactions. Interactions are embedded in the story and background, which offer explanatory guidelines for the meaning of interactions and speech.
Given the fact that we lack the essential context at the beginning of the mediation, we cannot establish with certainty the motivation for the party’s behaviour. Does this mean that reflection has no use at the beginning of the mediation if we cannot identify the manifestation of weakness or self-absorption sufficiently? In other words, if we do not have a context of the interaction between the parties, should we refrain from reflecting the statements of the parties?
We believe that it is appropriate to make a reflection rather than not to do so in a situation of contextual insufficiency. There are three reasons for such a conclusion.
First, we should apply the precautionary principle. If one is not able to say with certainty whether the behavior is a manifestation of relational weakness or not, we suggest to react as if it were a manifestation of relational weakness. If that assumption proves to be incorrect, the unnecessary reflection will probably do no harm. Otherwise, if it was a manifestation of weakness, but the mediator did not respond to it accordingly, there is an increased risk that the parties will immediately deepen their sense of confusion, hopelessness and distrust in the process.
Second, we should realize that at the beginning of the mediation, the procedural context might create ambiguity as to who may or should conduct a conversation. As long as the parties do not interact with each other, it is practically not solely their conversation. After all, even transformative theory assumes that there is an initial conversation between the mediator and the parties. It is, therefore, entirely legitimate that in the first minutes of mediation, not only the parties but also the mediator can assume that it is possible to have a conversation between the party and the mediator.
Third, if we look at the whole mediation from the relational perspective, reflection is a suitable technique even in the initial stage. The transformative conflict theory focuses only on the relationship between the parties while completely neglecting another essential relationship. That is the relationship between the mediator and each of the parties. For example, in the aforementioned situation, in which the party at the beginning of mediation focuses on the mediator merely because he or she is convinced that it is a matter of social convention and decency to introduce the situation to the mediator. In such a case, it is clear that the conversation is held between the parties and sometimes between the party and the mediator. Thus, the mediator would use reflection not as a reaction to the relational weakness or self-absorption of the party but as an expression of recognition.
Recognition is not merely a manifestation of a constructive conflict resolution between the parties. Recognition and its various manifestations are central element in shaping individuals’ personalities and forming social groups. Through recognition from other people, individuals gain self-trust, self-respect and self-esteem, which are essential ingredients for building identity, empowerment and agency. Thus, the reflection at the beginning of mediation can be entirely in line with the relational worldview without being directly linked to the manifestations of weakness or self-absorption. It is simply a mediators’ recognition of the other, an expression of recognition of our common humanity.
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