Summary of "Empowerment and Mediation: A Narrative Perspective"

Summary of

Empowerment and Mediation: A Narrative Perspective

By Sara Cobb

This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Sara Cobb, "Empowerment and Mediation: A Narrative Perspective," Negotiation Journal 9:3 (July 1993), pp. 245-255.

Cobb investigates and critiques current concepts of empowerment, and current mediation practices designed to empower parties. She then suggests a narrative understanding of empowerment, and describes several mediation practices which follow from the narrative approach.


Currently empowerment is discussed at two levels. First, the rehabilitative/developmental model of empowerment focuses on the level of the individual. From this viewpoint empowered parties experience increased self-esteem, improved control over decision making, an increased sense of their own power, and the reduction of painful emotions.

The social model of empowerment emphasizes the community level. Community empowerment is thought to be the result of individual empowerment. Empowered communities develop their own norms, experience improved community relations, and are better able to manage diversity.

Critique of Current Concepts and Practices

Cobb asks, What evidence is there that such empowerment is occurring? Studies generally rely on parties' reports of satisfaction and sense of power, but Cobb notes that such subjective reports are not valid measures of empowerment. Moreover, since the absence of conflict within a community does not insure the presence of justice, community conflict levels are not good indicators of community empowerment.

Cobb's own research suggests that mediators seek to empower parties through three kinds of practices. Mediators seek to balance power between the parties. They may seek to control the mediation process. They seek to empower their clients by maintaining neutrality. Cobb critiques each of these practices.

Mediators and mediation theory more generally tend to define power as the ability to impose one's will on another. Since we cannot directly perceive another's will or intentions, we must infer their intentions from their actions. In seeking to assess and then balance power between the parties, the mediator unavoidably subjects the parties to the mediator's own interpretations of their actions. Cobb argues that this practice is not empowering, because it usurps the parties' self-authorship.

Mediators generally distinguish between managing process and managing content. Managing the mediation process is thought to empower parties, while managing the content of the mediation session would be disempowering. Citing other theorists, Cobb argues that the distinction between content and process is empty. Managing the process also, unavoidably, affects the content of mediation. Hence mediators face a dilemma: how can their management of the content of a dispute be consistent with enhancing parties' control of their lives?

Finally, Cobb argues that mediator neutrality or impartiality conflicts with the mandate to balance power and to "represent the unrepresented interests of the parties."[p. 249]

A Narrative Approach

Cobb argues that the problems faced by the above practices stem from the definition of empowerment in psychological terms, as a feeling. Cobb believes that a communication-based approach may resolve some of the ambiguity which presently surrounds the concept and practice of empowerment.

Drawing upon narrative theory, Cobb defines empowerment as "a set of discursive practices that enhance the participation of disputants."[p. 250] By participation Cobb means "the co-elaboration or co-construction of a conjoint story."[p. 250] Participation/empowerment is necessarily interactive.

Narrative and Disempowerment

Narrative theory claims that stories do not just describe reality. Stories or narratives in effect create social reality. "In mediation, narrative closure or coherence is problematic because it stabilizes the description of the problem in ways that delimit its transformation."[p. 251] The task of the mediator, then, is to destabilize and open up conflict narratives to permit the development of a conjoint story. Cobb observes that participation, and hence empowerment, may be constrained by both the structure of narratives and by the process by which narratives are created.

Narrative coherence and closure are also problematic when the parties' ability to produce coherent narratives is uneven. Stories gain coherence by being more complete, and by resonating more closely with the dominant culture. A more coherent story will tend to dominate and marginalize a less coherent one, and so reduce participation on that party's part. Thus narrative theory redescribes power imbalances as differing degrees of narrative coherence.

The nature of the narrative process can also be problematic for mediation. Parties take turns in speaking when developing a narrative. Cobb explains that the first speaker is greatly advantaged in this process. The first speaker gets to frame the dispute. The second speaker is left in a dilemma. If they submit to that framing, their participation is diminished, and so they are disempowered. If they do not respond within that framework, then their speech seems irrelevant and incoherent, and so their participation is diminished. Similarly the first speaker may create a negative description of the other party. Such negative descriptions de-legitimate and so disempower their object. Ironically the second speaker's attempts to deny or refute that negative description will simply tend to reinforce it.

Narrative and Empowerment

Given this narrative understanding of empowerment, Cobb suggests three mediation practices which should enhance the parties' participation and empowerment. First, begin the mediation with private sessions. This will circumvent some of the problems caused by turn-taking. This also gives the mediator an opportunity to look for places of lesser completeness or coherence in the parties' stories. Such places can then be used to further open up the parties' stories to the possibility of transformation into a more conjoint narrative.

Second, the mediator can facilitate the construction of positive descriptions for all participants. While such interventions are difficult, one helpful tool is the use of positive connotations. The mediator should seek to impute positive or non-malicious intentions to both parties when seeking explanations for their actions.

Finally, mediators should "circularize" the parties' stories. This technique involves the use of a series of circular questions. In answering the questions the parties create interdependence between their stories and themselves. Cobb includes an example of such a circular series of questions. This process should be used in both private and public sessions.