Find Mediators Near You:

The Application Of Motivational Interviewing In A Mediation Caucus


Conflict is a natural part of human existence. It is the result of diverging needs, interests and perspectives within an individual or between people. Often it is thought of as negative, destructive and a thing to be avoided. Interestingly, in Chinese the word is devised of the symbol for danger joined with the symbol for opportunity. Conflict can also be seen as an opportunity for change.

To resolve conflict between two parties, mediation is often very effective. Mediation is a process in which a neutral third party, skilled in identifying areas of agreement, assists disputants in reaching a negotiated settlement on their own, rather than having a settlement imposed upon them. The main objective of the mediator is to highlight areas in which she has heard the parties willing to compromise – or change – in order to come to an agreement. Motivational interviewing is a technique often used by therapists to overcome a client’s personal conflict by facilitating an exploration of ambivalence regarding change. It can also be used in mediation to elicit movement in a dispute toward compromise.

When the mediation process stalls, a mediator will often choose to pull either party out for a moment to meet separately – to caucus. The advantage of a caucus is that it allows the disputant to reveal feelings and information that did not come out in the joint session. It gives the mediator an opportunity to discover underlying hostilities and begin to move the disputant away from an unworkable, fixed position. It is here that motivational interviewing can be most effective. If the mediator has been successful in her affirmations, empathic listening and summarizing, she will have created trust and an alliance whereby she can begin to highlight the discrepancy between where the disputant wants to be and the current actions/positions that are keeping the disputant from achieving the desired agreement.

Motivational Interviewing (MI)

Motivational Interviewing is based on four major principles, as follows:

1. Empathy

2. Developing Discrepancy

3. Rolling with Resistance

4. Supporting Self-efficacy

With these four principles in mind, a motivational interviewer will attempt to elicit change talk by creating a neutral, safe environment where the client can explore their ambivalence regarding change. This is done in an empathic yet directive manner – the interviewer listens non-judgmentally while directing the client toward a desired change by asking neutral, exploratory questions that develop a discrepancy between the client’s values and current behavior. As the discrepancy widens, the client becomes motivated to change his behavior to reach the values he espouses.

There are five specific methods used in motivational interviewing to achieve the above, and they are referred to as OARS – open-ended questions, affirmations, reflective listening and summarizing. The fifth method brings the first four together in a directive yet collaborative sort of dance with the client to aid in evoking the type of thinking that shows the client is beginning to consider change (“change talk”).

Comparative Principles and Methods

Mediation and motivational interviewing share the same foundations of collaboration, evocation and autonomy. They are similar in the following specific areas as well:


Both a mediator and motivational interviewer need to express empathy to develop trust, confidence and an alliance with the involved parties. Without empathy, the processes of both are rendered ineffective.

Developing Discrepancy

In MI, it is the gentle emergence of the difference between the client’s goals and desires and his current state of being that allows him to begin movement toward change. In mediation, a discrepancy automatically exists between two parties. Therefore, it is actually the discrepancy in the individual disputant’s desire for compromise and the current state of dispute that the mediator tries to develop in a caucus situation via MI.

Rolling with resistance

Individuals will often resist change, so it is imperative that the interviewer not get caught defending one side of the client’s ambivalence. When met with resistance, an interviewer will shift the focus, reflect the client’s perspective, reframe the resistance, agree with a twist (a reflection followed by a reframe), emphasize the client’s control and choice, and/or come alongside (therapeutic paradox). In mediation, resistance is inherent. However, it is imperative for the mediator to stay neutral and never engage the disputant in taking a particular side. The mediator can reduce resistance also by shifting the focus to areas of agreement, reframing disagreements to highlight any positives, affirming the efforts of the disputants and encouraging their feeling of empowerment over the process.

Supporting Self-efficacy

A client will have a far better chance to move toward change, and maintain that change, if they feel empowered, believe in their abilities and devise the path to change on their own. It is a mediator’s similar objective to encourage the disputants by affirming their progress toward compromise, praising their willingness to mediate, and in the end creating the agreement using their own words. In this way, they are more likely to create an effective agreement that they will own and enforce.

Evoking Change Talk

A key element in motivational interviewing in a mediation caucus is the mediator’s skill in evoking a discussion regarding changing one’s position and moving toward compromise. This can be done in a variety of ways in addition to the ones highlighted above.

The Importance Ruler

On a scale of 1-10, how important is it for you to reach an agreement?

On a scale of 1-10, how close are you to compromise?

Why are you at that number and not a lower number?

These types of questions highlight the progress that has been made in moving toward an agreement and remind the disputant of how important it is to continue his progress.

Exploring the Decisional Balance

What are the positives and negatives of not reaching an agreement?

Ask the disputant to explore the greatest strength to the opponent’s argument.

Ask the disputant to point out the weakest point to their own argument.

Ask if he could change three facts about his argument that would suddenly put him at an advantage, what would they be?

These questions force the disputant to acknowledge both sides to the dispute, or reveal the greatest weaknesses creating dissonance about the strength of the case, and highlight their own ambivalence regarding reaching an agreement.

Looking Forward and Back

Ask the disputant to describe what life will look like if they do not come to an agreement.

Ask the disputant to describe the better future they will have when they reach an agreement.

Ask the disputant to recall a prior conflict, and ask them how they managed to resolve it

This direction requires the disputant to envision the future, either good or bad, to motivate them toward or away from that future. Or it calls upon past experience to remind them of a time they were able to change or compromise in the same way.

Readiness For Change

As in motivational interviewing with a single client, there are signs in the mediation process – either in a caucus or regular session – that the disputants are ready to begin compromise.

Decreased resistance – the disputants begin arguing less and agreeing more.

Decreased discussion of the problem – there is a feeling of moving forward, taking the next step, focusing on solutions.

Resolve – There is less hostility in the room, the disputants may begin joking with each other as they feel a calm resolve to compromise. Mediators must be careful to watch for a feeling of giving in of one party, or a sense of loss, as the agreement is less likely to be effective if both parties are not happy with the outcome.

Change Talk/Compromise – Disputants may begin discussing the dissatisfaction with the current state of the problem, and begin discussing solutions.

Questions – In the Open Exchange, disputants will begin to ask each other questions, testing the waters of what they other side may agree to. This can imply a readiness on their side to compromise as well.

Envisioning – Disputants may begin to reflect on or envision life without the dispute and openly speak of the positives of change.

A mediator can also misread the disputants’ readiness for agreement building, and push the process before it is ready. Similar to motivational interviewing, it is important not to underestimate the disputants’ ambivalence simply because they may be showing some of the above signs. If the mediator has correctly interpreted their readiness, then she is ready to move the process to Building and Writing the Agreement, which in MI would be akin to initiating Phase 2 – Strengthening the Commitment to Change. This phase begins with a recapitulation involving summarizing the process thus far. The mediator then moves to negotiating a change plan – in effect highlighting the areas of agreement and eliciting a commitment by asking the disputants if they are ready to write their agreement.


Just as the commitment to a change plan in MI signifies the end of the process for a single client, the commitment to and writing of the agreement brings the mediation to a close. In closing statements, it is the mediator’s role to confirm the exact wording of the agreement, re-affirm with the disputants that they fully agree before signing, and acknowledge their hard work in compromising to reach closure.

Ethical Considerations

As with any situation where one person is perceived to have an expertise or to be in control of a process, it is imperative for the mediator and motivational interviewer alike to remain a neutral guide in the process. In mediation, it can be very easy to feel that one side is more reasonable or more right than the other. A mediator might also consider the playing field to be uneven, and that one side has a clear disadvantage because they are less informed. In those instances, the mediator must continually self-monitor for any signs that she might be favoring one side.

A motivational interviewer can often see a clear and correct path for her client, even though the client might be unsure and not ready. A skilled persuader might be able to lead the client in that direction, but it is likely that if the client did not arrive at the change plan of their own accord, that it will not stick.

While either mediating or interviewing, it is a priority to continually self-check for appropriate neutrality to ensure that your personal aspirations are not directing either process.


Because of their shared objectives and methodologies, motivational interviewing is a valuable tool that can be used to aid a mediator in resolving ambivalence and leading disputants to resolve their conflict via compromise. While motivational interviewing can certainly be used effectively in joint mediation sessions, it can be a particularly useful instrument in a caucus setting when dealing with an individual’s need to find middle ground in a conflict.


Miller, Warren R., Rollnick, Stephen (2002). Motivational Interviewing, Second Edition. New York: The Guillford Press.

Reiman, J. (2008, June 04). Impasse management techniques. Message posted to http://[email protected]

Buntz, G. (2006). Proceedings from CADRE Symposium: 50 ways to leave your impasse. Washington, DC.


Merriam Saunders

Merriam Saunders is a Masters candidate in Counseling Psychology at Dominican University of California and an MFT trainee at Bay Area Community Resources in Marin County, California.  She is a trained mediator for ADR for Marin County Office of Education's Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) mediating contenscious IEPs between school districts… MORE >

Featured Mediators

View all

Read these next


Radical Collaboration

The impact of technology tools and applications is very apparent in our lives. Siri finds us the closest Starbucks. Alexa plays our favorite mood music, turns off the lights at...

By Larry Bridgesmith

What Would You Ask Russ Feingold ? (an actual request for help)

ADR Prof Blog by Andrea Schneider, Michael Moffitt, Sarah Cole,Art Hinshaw, Jill Gross and Cynthia Alkon. In about a week, Russ Feingold will be visiting the University of Oregon. Most...

By Michael Moffitt

Non-Apology Apologies

From the Indisputably blogThe law generally doesn’t do much to promote apologies.  They aren’t included in the panoply of remedies that judges can impose on unwilling parties.  Even if courts...

By John Lande