- Martin Luther King, Jr.
What Mediation Is:
Mediation is a process in which a third-party neutral assists in resolving a dispute between two or more other parties. It is a non-adversarial approach to conflict resolution. The role of the mediator is to facilitate communication between the parties, assist them in focusing on the real issues of the dispute, and generate options that meet the interests or needs of all relevant parties in an effort to resolve the conflict.
Unlike arbitration, where the intermediary listens to the arguments of both sides and makes a decision for the disputants, a mediator assists the parties to develop a solution themselves. Although mediators sometimes provide ideas, suggestions, or even formal proposals for settlement, the mediator is primarily a "process person," helping the parties define the agenda, identify and reframe the issues, communicate more effectively, find areas of common ground, negotiate fairly, and hopefully, reach an agreement. A successful mediation effort has an outcome that is accepted and owned by the parties themselves.
Where It is Used:
Mediation is widely used in all sorts of disputes, ranging from divorces to civil lawsuits to very complex public policy problems to international conflicts. Many disputes that have not responded to an initial attempt at negotiation can still be settled through mediation. Even when conflicts are seemingly intractable, they sometimes yield to mediation. Mediation is of particular importance in long-running, deep-rooted conflicts, as this type of conflict is rarely resolved without such outside assistance. Even if the full range of grievances cannot be resolved, mediation is often useful for dealing with particular limited aspects of the wider conflict.
How Mediation Works:
Although a mediator cannot force an outcome, the process is very often effective. The key is the ability of the mediator to create a more productive discussion than the parties could have had by themselves. To do this, mediators help the parties determine facts; they show empathy and impartiality with the parties; and they help the parties generate new ideas. Mediators also exercise political skill and use persuasion to get people to soften hard-line positions. Often, though not always, they have a lot of background knowledge of the issues and type of dispute. Though many mediators are highly trained and experienced, not all are professionals, and they come from many different walks of life.
Lawyers often believe that the purpose of mediation is rapid and efficient settlement of a particular case. But others disagree. Sometimes the purpose of a mediation is more to improve relationships among parties who will have to deal with each other again, or even to help them learn how best to handle conflict with other parties in the future. Often, a mediator has to learn which of these purposes is most important to the parties in a particular case, and tailor the service to match, but different mediators tend to specialize in one variety of mediation or another. (Mediation that focuses on settlement is sometimes termed problem-solving mediation; mediation that focuses more on relationships is often called transformative mediation.)
While many mediators pride themselves on their neutrality, some observers believe that it is impossible any human being to be truly neutral. Others have concluded that even biased mediators can be useful, as long as the bias is not hidden from any party and parties have an opportunity to protect themselves against its effects. International mediations are often of this type, because an effective international mediator is often a foreign minister or president of an influential country, even though everyone understands that the mediator's country has interests of its own. President Carter's mediation between Egypt and Israel was an example.
A high school student sits down with two others to help them stop fighting; many miles away, the Secretary-General of the United Nations is chairing a meeting of 15 ambassadors who are trying to avert a war. These two situations may not seem to have much in common. But both are forms of mediation.
In virtually every situation where negotiation is not going well, or where for one reason or another it seems impossible to get a real discussion going with the other party or parties, it's worth asking whether bringing in someone else might at least help get communication going. That someone else is likely to be, or act as, a mediator. While parties' understanding of this process varies from setting to setting, in some places it is now routine to use mediators where two decades ago there was no practice to speak of. For example, the courts of the U.S. State of Florida alone now refer approximately 150,000 cases per yearto mediation, rather than expecting the parties to fight their disputes out in trials or to work out settlements without third-party help. While most of these cases are likely relatively simple to resolve, routinizing mediation is one way to prevent conflicts from becoming intractable.
More information on different kinds of mediation, and mediation of intractable disputes can be found in associated essays:
Use the following to cite this article:
Honeyman, Christopher and Nita Yawanarajah. "Mediation." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/mediation>.