Seeing Theory in Practice: An Analysis of Empathy in Mediation
by Dorothy J. Della Noce
Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: "Seeing Theory in Practice: An Analysis of Empathy in Mediation," Dorothy J. Della Noce, Negotiation Journal, 15:3 (July 1999), pp. 271-301.
Della Noce asks whether and how ideology affects mediator practice. She describes the individualist ideology that supports problem-solving approaches to mediation, and the relational ideology that informs transformative approaches. She then examines how these different ideologies shape mediators understandings of the nature and role of empathy. Case studies indicate that these different understandings yield differences in mediator practice.
An ideology is similar to a world view. It is a set of socially shared beliefs, a "well-systematized set of assumptions that provide the cognitive and social frame for the beliefs, perceptions and behaviors of a group of individuals."(p. 274) Ideologies include values, beliefs about human nature, and beliefs about how people should relate to each other. Drawing on the work of Bush and Folger, the author contrasts two ideologies--individualist and relational, each of which corresponds to a particular theoretical framework for mediation--problem-solving and transformative.
The individualist ideology sees humans as essentially pre-social. Humans are essentially separate, independent, autonomous beings. Individuals have certain needs and interests. Individuals are motivated by self-interest to interact with others, even to become interdependent, in order to satisfy their needs and interests. The primary "good" or value to be achieved is the satisfaction of individual needs. Given this view of human nature, human relations are seen as naturally and appropriately transactional. "Rational-economic explanations of human behavior predominate, and add to the picture of human beings as calculating, and even selfish, interested primarily in maximizing their own gain."(p. 276)
The relational ideology sees humans as essentially social. Humans are essentially interrelated and interdependent. They are constantly and naturally engaged in processes of social discourse, and are themselves formed by social and discursive processes. Individual autonomy is a socially mediated achievement. Social conditions can produce separateness, isolation or self-absorption, but these are not seen as being natural or original human conditions. Given this view of human nature, human relations are seen as naturally and appropriately relational and dialogical. People are motivated by the desire for quality interactions with others. "The 'good' which emerges through this dialectic is transformation: an enrichment of the quality of the interaction and of the personal/interpersonal awareness of the individuals involved, evidenced by new understandings, shared meaning, appreciation of difference, deliberation, and ultimately, considered decisions about how to act."(p. 277)
Individualist ideology supports a problem-solving approach to conflict mediation. Individuals in conflict should engage in interest-based bargaining, in which they exchange incentives and concessions. Each party's goal is to satisfy their own interests, although they should recognize that, given the practical situation, satisfying the other's interests may be instrumentally important in reaching that goal. The mediator's task is to help parties focus on their interests, and identify possible solutions. Problem-solving mediators tend to become outcome oriented, and to view the process itself in instrumental terms. Their activities include "shaping the definition of the conflict into a tangible problem to be solved, dropping any of the parties' issues that cannot be treated as tangible problems, and pressing toward particular solutions."(p. 278).
Relational ideology encourages a transformative approach to mediation. Individuals in conflict relations should seek to improve the quality of their relationship by seeking better understanding of themselves and the other, and by creating shared meanings. The parties' goals are empowerment (growth in strength of self), and recognition (concern for others). The mediator's task is to foster opportunities for recognition and empowerment. Transformative mediators tend to be process-oriented. They define success as improvements in the parties' personal clarity and interpersonal understanding.
Although all mediators stress the importance of fostering empathy between the parties, Della Noce argues that mediators foster different types of empathy, based on which ideology they subscribe to. Problem-solving mediators foster transactional empathy, whereas transformative mediators foster relational empathy.
In problem-solving, empathy is seen as an instrument, valuable in so far as it helps the parties satisfy their (personal, pre-existing) interests. "Bargainers need only understand enough about the other's interests to get to a satisfactory deal."(p. 283) Empathy is also treated as a commodity for exchange, offered on the condition that the other party does the same. The author argues that "The mediator who privileges Individualist assumptions by adopting interest-based bargaining will filter the parties' communication through a transactional lens, which, in turn, will color what the mediator recognizes as an opportunity for empathy and deems a competent response."(p. 283) Empathy is used to uncover interests, and competent empathic responses are those which clarify interests.
In transformative mediation, empathy is valued in itself. "With the focus on interaction rather than individual psychology, the communicative process of developing empathy is valuable in its own right, whatever the outcome, because empathy itself expresses the enrichment of interaction and personal awareness that embodies the 'good' in Relational ideology."(p. 285) Della Noce examines different mediators' responses to the same conflict simulation, and finds that "the mediators heard very different things from the parties as they interacted with each other, highlighted different aspects of the interaction as salient to mediation, and responded in different ways."(p. 294) These differences in mediator practice correspond with differences in their preferred mediation approaches, and underlying ideology.
Della Noce concludes that ideology, implicit in theoretical frameworks, does strongly affect mediation practice. She identifies four policy implications that result from this finding. First, a number of critiques have shown that strong mediator neutrality is impossible, since mediators unavoidably influence and shape both the process and the outcome of disputes. Rather than continuing to mandate mediator neutrality, the author suggests "that policy makers accept the inevitability of mediator influence, and pursue clarity regarding differences in theoretical frameworks and the forms of mediator influence which are normative in each frame work. Then policymakers can begin to shape policies that honestly reflect the proper parameters of influence under various theories of practice."(p. 295) In the interests gaining fully informed consent, mediators should disclose their theory of practice. Similarly, mediation programs should identify their theoretical assumptions.
Second, attempts to identify a universal set of core skills necessary for good mediation practice is misguided. The author's analysis "demonstrates that no single mediator move can be said to make sense (that is, to be competent or not) except as it is enacted in interaction, as a part of the mediator's theoretical framework, embedded in certain ideological assumptions. Even if it is possible at some point to say there are 'core skills,' this says nothing about the judgement necessary to determine how, when and why to use those skills in interaction."(p. 296) A third, related, policy implication is that training standards must acknowledge their theoretical presuppositions, and training programs should be explicit about their theoretical approach to mediation.
Finally, Della Noce suggests that ideological frameworks can and should be taught as part of mediation training. Reflective mediators can become aware of their own ideological frameworks, and may be able to change some of their fundamental assumptions over time.