Summary of "Informal Mediation by the Scholar/Practitioner"

Summary of

Informal Mediation by the Scholar/Practitioner

By Herbert C. Kelman

This Article Summary written by: Cosima Krueger, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Herbert C. Kelman, "Informal Mediation by the Scholar/Practitioner," in Mediation in International Relations, eds., Jacob Bercovitch and Jeffery Rubin, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992), pp. 64-96.

Kelman describes his interactive problem solving approach to conflict resolution. This approach consists primarily of workshops which, "try to contribute to creating a political environment conducive to conflict resolution and to transformation of the relationship between the conflicting parties."[65] Such workshops are intended to supplement and complement official negotiations.

Kelman's approach differs from more traditional forms of mediation, which generally focus on the facilitation of negotiated settlements. Workshops facilitate the negotiation process only indirectly, by promoting an environment which would support opening official negotiations. Workshops are focused on promoting certain kinds of communication, rather than on producing a settlement.

A Typical Workshop

The author describes the general format of the workshops which he has facilitated. Workshops are private, confidential, and unofficial. There are generally three to six participants from each of the conflicting groups, and three to eight facilitators. Facilitators are generally academics. The participants are politically active, possibly influential, members of their communities. The participants are briefed on the nature of the workshop process in separate pre-workshop sessions. The workshops proper last two and a half days. They open with general introductions and a review of the upcoming process. Participants and facilitators share meals and recreation or social events. The facilitators propose a loose agenda, often setting participants the task of jointly generating ideas for bringing both sides to the (official) negotiating table. Each side is given the opportunity to express their fears and concerns before they begin to suggest and consider solutions.

In Kelman's view, the distinctive features of these workshops include the academic context which supports the free exchange of ideas in a non-committal atmosphere. The nature of the communication involved is also distinctive. Parties are encouraged to focus on listening to and reaching an analytic understanding of each other, rather than on playing to their constituencies. Workshops have a twofold purpose: to educate each party about the other, and to transfer these new understandings to the political arena. In the interactive problem solving approach the role of the third-party is to provide the context for the interaction, to set the guidelines and norms for communication, and to serve as a locus of trust. Third-party facilitators may make substantive substantive observations on the process which is unfolding between the parties, and may offer insight and conceptual tools from their knowledge of conflict theory.

Assumptions Behind the Interactive Problem Solving Approach

The interactive problem-solving approach rests on certain social- psychological assumptions about the nature of international conflict and resolution. First, conflict is an intersocial event, and so effective responses to conflict must address cultural, economic and social issues, as well as strategic and military issues. Second, conflict resolution seeks to transform the relationship between the conflicting parties. Next, diplomacy aimed at conflict resolution must include a broad array of official and unofficial processes. Furthermore, internal divisions within the conflicting societies have important effects on the course of the greater conflict. Finally, the world is a global society. The author stresses the interdependence of nations, and points out that nations themselves are neither unitary nor the sole actors on the world scene. The interactive problem-solving approach also rests on certain social- psychological assumptions about the sort of communication that workshops are intended to promote. It assumes that effective conflict resolution must involve "an opportunity for the parties immediately penetrate each other's perspective and to engage in joint problem-solving designed to produce ideas for a mutually satisfactory agreement between them."[84] Next it assumes that the products of social interaction are emergent, that is, they only emerge over the course of the actual process of social interaction. Additionally, the interaction which workshops seek to promote should emphasize addressing and listening to each other, analytical problem solving thinking, and refraining from casting blame. It also assumes that previous interactions between the parties had been governed by conflict norms, which tend to escalate and perpetuate conflict. Finally, the goal of these workshops is social-psychological in nature. They seek to "produce change in individuals as a vehicle for change in policies and actions of the political system."[86]

The substantive content addressed by interactive problem-solving workshops also rests on certain social-psychological assumptions. First is the claim that satisfaction of both parties' human needs is the final criterion of an adequate resolution. Second, parties must explore each other's needs and fears in order to change their perceptions of one another, and so make mutual reassurance and trust possible. Furthermore, threat-based influence processes are not sufficient for modern international relations. Mutual influence through mutual responsiveness to each other's needs provides a needed addition to the international repertoire of influence processes.


Kelman notes that the specific sort of workshop described here is perhaps most appropriate to long-term conflicts where some convergence of interests has occurred and there is a general, if diffuse, interest in changing the conflict status quo. However, Kelman believes that the interactive problem-solving approach has some applicability in any diplomatic process. Moreover, the interactive problem-solving ideology may make important contributions toward changing international approaches to discourse, and toward promoting alternate means of influence. Kelman's recent work has focused on the creation of a continuing series of workshops. His hope is that each subsequent workshop will be able to capitalize on the gains of the earlier ones, and so greater cumulative effects may be achieved.