Transformative Mediation
A Best Fit for the Workplace
by Larry J. Blackwell, Esq.


Alternative dispute resolution is being used with increasing frequency in every aspect of life be it legal disputes, family quarrels, neighbor differences, business conflicts or differences between employees on the job.


One form of mediation that has been particularly useful in addressing employment disputes is "transformative" mediation. Transformative mediation is a process whereby people who have a need for an ongoing interdependent relationship explore their differences at an almost therapeutic level to get their relationship back on track.


One might ask what the difference is between traditional and transformative methods of mediation that make transformative mediation a better fit for employment disputes. We can better understand the benefits of transformative mediation through a comparison of it with traditional or what is also known as "directive" mediation. Comparing the orientation of the mediator's style and approach to mediation helps us understand why transformative mediation is better suited for employment disputes.


Essentially, a mediator with a "directive" orientation to mediation believes the conflict represents only a problem to be solved or a dispute to be settled. The directive mediator assumes ownership of the parties' problems and its solutions. The directive mediator directly or subtly engages in activities that drive, determine, or impose both the definition of the problem and its solution.


A mediator with a "transformative" orientation, on the other hand, believes that conflict presents opportunities for individuals to change (transform their interactions with each other), if they choose.


During a transformative mediation session, decision making about who talks first, whether or not there will be ground rules for the session, definition of the issues and concerns, the range of the discussion, settlement possibilities and whether any resulting terms of agreement will be reduced to writing are all determined by the parties to a dispute (conflict partners) rather than the mediator.


The mediator may appear to be an uninvolved observer of the interaction between the conflict partners. The opposite is actually true. The mediator, rather than leading the partners' interactions actually "follows" them around. In following, the mediator looks and listens for empowerment and recognition opportunities in the dialogue.


"Empowerment" entails those opportunities to facilitate the feelings of power over the process so that the parties feel a greater control over the mediation session and hence the outcomes. Empowerment builds the participant's self -confidence to not only address the differences that brought them to the mediation session, but also to successfully address differences that may arise in the future work setting. This they should be able to do without the intervention of a third party such as a mediator, supervisor, union representatives or human resources staff.


As examples of the mediator eliciting empowerment she might say, "Who wants to talk first", "I want to make it clear that I don't make that decision - you do.", or "How are you with that point of agreement?" All of these questions help shift dependency and power from the mediator to the partners in conflict.

"Recognition" is achieved when, given some degree of empowerment, conflict partners experience an expanded willingness to acknowledge and be responsive to the other partner's situations and common human qualities.


A transformative mediator fosters recognition by encouraging and supporting (but not forcing) each partner's voluntary efforts to achieve new understandings of the other's perspectives (at every opportunity in the session). In a mediated session between Mary and Jim, Jim might say, "Mary, your report summary was very well done" At that point the transformative mediator will slow down the process and seek acknowledgement of the recognition of Mary by Jim. He might say, "Mary, Jim appears to be giving you a compliment. You do not seem to accept it. How are you feeling about…? Can you tell me about…?"


With recognition the partners choose to become more open, attentive, responsive to the situation of another, thereby expanding their perspective to include appreciation for another's situation.


Transformative mediation is ideally suited for disputes that occur in a work setting because it:

  1. encourages the expression of feelings which lead to unveiling the real concerns of the parties,
  2. helps the parties move from relative weakness to relative strength,
  3. helps the parties get clearer, more confident, and more decisive thereby strengthening their capacity for self-determination,
  4. helps the partners in a dispute move from self-absorption to attentiveness to others by strengthening their capacity to become more open, receptive and responsive to others.


All of these enhanced capabilities practiced in the mediation session help the partners continue to build their relationship back in the work place.

Since the partners have more control over the transformative mediation process than they would have in a mediation session where the directive or traditional style is practiced, the agreements the partners come away with are viewed as their own and hence are longer lasting.


Executives, supervisors and managers can apply some of the principles of transformative mediation described here to help facilitate better communication with and among their staff, and to reduce the time, expense and the headaches associated with unmanaged employee disputes.

Larry Blackwell, is President of Conflict Resolution Resources, a management consulting firm helping organizations build cooperation for improved team functioning. He is an attorney, EEOC qualified mediator and a trainer of self- mediation certified by the Dana Mediation Institute International. Mr. Blackwell specializes in workplace mediation, diversity and in-house discrimination investigations. You may reach him at 612.824.2616 or through email at .