Warren Bennis, Mediators, and the RPM

Reasonable Person Model Blog

Warren Bennis, academic, consultant and author on leadership, once suggested that there are two ways to be creative. He said, "One can sing and dance. Or one can create an environment where singers and dancers flourish." I love that idea.

Mediators have been likened to many other roles, but I like to think of them as architects. While some are more reluctant than others to "leave the stage" – to continue the metaphor – great mediators know how to do just that. They understand that their most helpful contribution is to create a mediation environment where the parties are best situated to help themselves. To be able to come together, in conditions which support them to "be at their best," to resolve their own problems. If the mediator’s accepted role in a particular dispute is not to tell the parties what to do, but rather to create the environmental conditions in which the parties will be best situated to solve their own dispute, a mediator needs to understand the types of environments most likely to be helpful to the parties.

This is where the Reasonable Person Model (RPM, previous posts) is so helpful. The model draws upon cognitive science and evolutionary biology to describe some basic, but critically important, human psychological needs and inclinations. In a nutshell, the RPM explains how "the desire to understand what is going on, to explore possibilities, to be part of the picture, and to enhance ones’s competence are all deeply human qualities." (see Creating a Larger role for Environmental Psychology: The Reasonable Person Model as an Integrative Framework," Kaplan and Kaplan). When these psychological needs are met, humans are naturally at their best. The key then, for someone concerned about this, would be to understand how to create such an environment.

By also explaining, in a very easy to understand manner, how to think about the environment in a conceptual way as comprised of patterns of information, the RPM helps us to understand the ways in which the environment may be supportive or not of these human needs and inclinations. And by doing so, how the environment will tend to bring out the best in people. Or as Bennis suggests, how to create a place where they can sing and dance. Exit stage right.


Karen Hollett

Karen Hollett is a lawyer, arbitrator and mediator working in Canada. She can can be reached at The Centre for Innovative Dispute Resolution in St. John's Newfoundland, Canada. MORE >

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