“It’s important to set ground rules at the start of a mediation, and then you can remind the parties of those rules if they get off track later,” said a trainee in one of my mediation courses. By the end of the course though, she knew that her statement didn’t make sense from the transformative perspective. A mediator setting ground rules is not a thing in transformative mediation, nor is the concept of “off track”. I’ve had many conversations about these sorts of issues in mediation trainings. Often, the training participants, particularly those who are experienced mediators in a different framework, see their role as to control and guide the conversation. They believe they are able to guide the conversation in a constructive direction, and they believe they are able to prevent the conflict from escalating.
As the training progresses, participants learn that transformative mediators leave as many decisions as possible in the hands of the parties. The parties decide: what ground rules, if any, to set; how and whether those ground rules are enforced; whether and how much the parties express hostility, distrust, disrespect, and dislike for each other; and what direction they want the conversation to go in at any moment in the session. Training participants often express the fear that such permissiveness will allow mediation sessions to get out of control, maybe even leading to physical violence.
It turns out there is a far more effective way to make violence less likely, than to try to contain the conversation.
I have practiced mediation full time since 1998 and I have been committed to practicing transformative mediation since about 2000. Since 2000, I’ve not seen it as my role to prevent escalation, to keep things civil, to avoid hot topics, or to do anything to block angry or hostile talk. At the same time, I have remained very focused in each moment on being supportive of the parties. The parties in my sessions have known that they were being heard, at least by me, and that I was not ever preferring that they do something different than what they were doing. The practice of being consistently, constantly supportive of all of the parties’ decision-making makes violence far less likely.
Violence arises from extreme frustration. Having a supportive person listen to you non-judgmentally tends to decrease frustration.
I have had two instances in my mediations where I felt the need to prevent unwanted physical contact between parties. Both were hugs. In each case one party moved to hug another party and the other party made it clear that she didn’t want to be hugged. One was a divorcing husband attempting to hug his wife; the other was an adult daughter trying to hug her mother. That’s the worst the violence has gotten, with me never seeking to prevent escalation.
My mediations have been between co-parents with a history of domestic violence, between former business partners who were trying to sue each other out of existence, between employees who had lost their jobs due to what they believed was unlawful discrimination and their supervisors who were being accused of discrimination. In those hundreds of cases, with my pure support, but not control, there have been only two times when the line was crossed where I chose to prevent certain behavior, two unwanted hugs.