The Mind Of A Mediator: my novel in progress

December 03, 2013

For the last seven or so years I’ve been writing a novel about a conflict manager. It’s been in the revision stage for six of those years. It stems from my interest in what goes on in mediators’ minds as we work. Writing the protagonist’s point of view has helped me think this through but I may never finish either the revisions or thinking about the internal workings of how I mediate. What genre this novel will be is unclear; I’m aiming for literary fiction in my highest aspiration and for just getting it published in my lowest.

We practitioners talk and write about many aspects of what goes on in mediation, especially best practices, research and our experiences (without party details – keeping confidentiality foremost). However, not much has been said about our in-the-moment thought and decision-making processes. Our love of conflict resolution analyses has not translated into writing about that moment of tension in which, with all parties’ eyes on us, we decide what to say or do next.

Do as I say – but do I know what I do?

We teach a linear stage or step model of mediating that is behavior based; do this, next that. However, we tend to use a nonlinear model that is cerebral based; think this, analyze that, or instinct based; feel this, emote that. In other words, the espoused theory of what we say we do in mediations, and the theory-in-use, (also called enacted theory), of what we really do and how we actually do it, may not align.

Think about any mediation, and there was most likely some heart stopping moment when you realized that the parties were expecting or needing you to do or say something. But what? Each intervention, every reframe or summary, and any caucus, has a potential to be a bifurcation point: that is, an instant in time that changes the parties’ path to something different, with no chance to return to what the path was before you said/did something.

How do I know what I think about where power is?

We sit in the mediator’s chair, usually at the head of table, and if you are like me, your mind is playing air traffic controller with dozens of intervention ideas and possibilities behaving like planes in the air. Depending on the mediator’s individual conflict resolution philosophy, orientation, experiences, and training, some ideas for interventions may land safely, some may be diverted to a different airport, some may remain in a holding pattern, and some may disappear from radar. The factors that influence our immediate decision-making in the nanoseconds between having the feeling/thought we should intervene and some sort of intervention in the form of words coming from our mouths, remain somewhat mysterious. How do we actually decide the precise moment to intervene and what that “best” intervention should be? Or, how do we decide that the ‘best’ intervention is none at all, while we sit silently watching the radar screen in our minds where our ideas and the parties’ interactions have near misses?

Not all of decisions have the same weight or impact. A mediators’ decision making scope ranges from early on: ‘I don’t have a conflict of interest and am available, therefore I will do this case’, to the day of the session and having coffee available, to which party speaks in what order, and every potential bifurcation point thereafter. But, the decisions often seem to occur without conscious discernment of the scale in importance or significance of each decision point. We do what we know how to do and trust that our individual decisions will not cumulatively impact the parties’ decision-making, because we believe that the decisions are theirs to make. Do we know this is, in fact, even true? Does the principle we espouse of decision-making being theirs apply to every decision or just to the ones involving the substance of the conflict?

That begs the next set of questions: what is the relationship between decisions we make about process and decisions parties make about content and substance? Do our decisions affect their decisions, and if so, how and to what extent? How innocuous/true is our belief that we only guide the process and the parties control the decisions and any outcome? Are those two decision streams silos or systems? If the decision streams are silos, our decisions about process should have no effect on the parties’ decisions about outcome. But if our decisions about process are part of the system, what we do does indeed risk affecting how they decide their own outcome. Do we take ownership of our own power and influence over their decisions?

What if beliefs about how I think are – shall I say – incomplete?

Decision-making is taught, researched and theorized. Dozens of decision-making models exist. Do we know which skills or models might be most appropriate in the multiple and complex contexts of various mediation styles? Do we even pay attention to what decision-making model we enact or espouse?

There are endless musings on decision-making that could inform mediator effectiveness. These are questions I have been pondering for the last few years. I still have more questions than answers; here are some preliminary thoughts about the instincts of our decision-making and impacts it might have on the conduct of mediations and outcomes.

1. From the first inquiry into a mediator’s availability until the mediator dies or retires, a mediator’s impact on a conflict’s decision-making path is engaged. In complexity science terms, a conflict is path-dependent: meaning how it goes depends on how it starts and what happens to it along the way. Conflict does not start at the mediation room door and stop when hands are shaken goodbye. The mediation and decisions made during it are added inputs in the conflict’s path so we should know how that works and how we work.

2. Which decisions are more important is revealed over time. Because mediators see only a fraction of the conflict, we may never know our impacts. Conflicts are comprised of discrete events as points in a time series that can be plotted. Interventions become part of the time series, incorporated into the conflict story no matter what the outcome. We can affect the conflict outside the boundaries of the mediation room in unknowable ways because we are part of the system. Our presence in the room was an input that can amplify or dampen conflicts’ changes over time.

3. Boundaries around conflict decisions are permeable. Linkages among decisions are not always clear. Maybe no one decision felt big at the time, but decisions’ effects’ are nonlinear, which means they can accumulate and cascade. If we just look at interactions in a linear and simple context, we risk missing important data about the conflict and our inputs into it.

4. Orientation towards risk affects capacity to decide. We talk a lot about mediation style and models, without considering that our risk tolerance and our capacity to use those models and styles are interconnected in our unique comfort zones. Do we pull back from lines of inquiry that feel dangerous to us or wade right into a morass?

5. Acceptance of ambiguity and uncertainty may be essential mediator traits, since only imperfect information exists. We stand in the tension of dichotomy and paradox without knowing anything beyond meaning we make of what we are told when we are under pressure to perform. Not only do we take for granted we understand how our meaning making machinery affects our decision-making skills, we also trust we understand how parties in the room make meaning that affects their decision-making.

6. The neuroscience suggests our decision-making performance may be hard wired in our brains, while the educational psychology suggests our decision-making performance can be improved. Is it either, or both of these that are correct or is the sum of the two greater than the individual parts? The science and art of decision-making suggest that what we do may be much more than what we understand we do, or it might be less than we assume we achieve.

In short, we pay more attention to advancing knowledge of skills without incorporating the complexity of decision-making. The intersection of decision-making, power, and mediators’ analysis of the risks and unfolding process as it unfolds is an overdue discussion. We make dozens of considered decisions about and during interventions with no idea of the eventual impacts. The power we wield over decision-making from our ‘impartial’ chairs may be a blend of fable we tell about our work and fact that we ignore.


  1. Nancy Love says:

    Well said. The Science of mediation is something we can teach others about. We can give them a list of the questions, the possible interests, the steps to follow, the answers to listen for but to teach them the ART of mediation is not as easy. It requires mentoring and role playing and in-action work to see the subtle behaviour changes brought about by the inner dialogue of the skilled mediator. The Apprenticeship of a mediator is a vital part of honing skills and thought processes, of tuning the apprentice in to the variations in tone, word, language, body, emotion that are the clues we work with.

    • Conflict Competence says:

      Thank you Nancy, both for this comment and for advancing the art of mediation in all you do. What I find interesting is that everyone can practice the skills and mindset you mention every day while listening to the radio, watching TV, overhearing a conversation, and/or reflecting silently about how a chat with a friend unfolded. Opportunities for rich communication skills are all around us.