Narrative Mediation: A New Approach to Conflict Resolution
John Winslade and Gerald Monk
Summary written by Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: John Winslade and Gerald Monk. Narrative Mediation: A New Approach to Conflict Resolution. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2000.
Drawing from recent theoretical developments in postmodern social theory and social constructionist movement in the social sciences and humanities, Winslade and Monk offer the field of conflict and dispute resolution a fresh new approach to managing and mediating a variety of conflicts. This approach is organized around the narrative metaphor- the notion that how we talk about ourselves and our conflicts shape how we perceive and react to these conflicts- and is premised on the idea that language plays a central role in constructing who we are or how we engage or behave with others. This discursive process focuses on how complex social contexts shape the multiple facets of social conflict as they are played out and mediated in practice by examining how the words and language we use to describe and understand our conflicts are operative in constructing an image in our minds of the conflict itself.
This narrative approach attempts to re-examine traditional theories of conflict mediation by examining how the stories we tell (or discourses) about conflict, our interests, our positions and our selves influence our interpretations and understanding of conflicts and their potential solutions. By deconstructing the assumptions underlying traditional problem-solving or "interest-based" mediation processes that focus on finding common or shared interests between conflicting parties, the authors make room for a perspective that considers how conflict is produced within a certain sociocultural milieu. In other words, the narrative mediation approach questions the commonly held assumption that our interests are "natural" or are predetermined before entering the conflict, and offers instead an approach that locates these deeply held values, interests and desires in a social and cultural context that prioritizes certain values and goals over those with which they compete.
The book starts by comparing this new, narrative approach to more traditional methods used in dispute mediation practice. The authors argue that traditional interest-based mediation theories and techniques are based on a set of specious epistemological and practical assumptions. Narrative mediation breaks with interest-based mediation by questioning the assumptions that humans are motivated to further their own self-interest and that conflict is best resolved by finding a set of underlying interests that can be bridged through collaboration or compromise. Many mediators, practitioners, and lay persons take as given that individuals possess pre-determined or "natural" desires or interests that underlie what people say they want out of a conflict situation. However, Winslade and Monk argue that what people want does not stem from internal desires or interests. Instead, they say, people construct conflict from narrative descriptions of events and our interests are conditioned socially and culturally from the stories (or discourses) we tell about these events.
The first half of the book goes through, step by step, detail by detail, the processes and theoretical underpinnings of this approach to understanding and resolving conflict. After reviewing mainstream assumptions about mediation theory and practice, the book takes on a deconstructionist approach to uncover some of the potential problems with these assumptions. Once the theoretical frame is laid, the authors outline the major features of the narrative mediation process and how the discourses surrounding social conflicts limit the potential for their resolution. One of these key discourses centers around an individualist bias in modern mediation theory. The authors argue that many mediation approaches assume that individuals come to the bargaining table with a sense of ownership or entitlement, and respond in ways that assumes that they are entitled to certain outcomes of the mediation process. People feel threatened when entitlements are encroached upon- anger, blame, rigidity, abuse, and violence are used to protect these entitlements.
After setting up the theoretical underpinnings of the narrative mediation approach, the authors get down to the nuts and bolts of implementing this approach in practice and outline the tasks that the mediator must perform. In particular, the authors outline a relational framework of trust, reflexivity, curiosity, and respect that complement this postmodern approach to mediation practice. This framework allows both the practitioner and disputants the opportunity to create a safe space for telling their personal stories of and relationships to the conflict. Once this space is opened up, the mediator works to deconstruct how each party is approaching and conceptualizing the conflict. By breaking down the conflict into its component parts and stories, the mediator is able to uncover the assumptions that each party brings to the conflict. Once these assumptions are uncovered, the mediator then moves the parties to explore their commitments to alternative relational patterns by opening a space where alternative approaches are considered by the conflict parties. By creating new options and alternatives, mediator and conflict parties create the motivation and momentum to author a new set of stories about their conflict. Once a new set of stories enter the world-views of the disputants, the contour and context of the conflict changes, and well as the relationship of the disputants to the conflict itself. By telling a new set of stories about the conflict and one's relationship to the conflict, the narrative mediation approach can help disputants move beyond violent, difficult, or seemingly intractable conflict situations. Moving past the conflict situation or getting "unstuck" is made possible by creating and making use of forms of documentation of the new story, one that is built on stories of understanding, respect, and collaboration instead of individualism, disrespect, and closed-mindedness.
Professionals involved in the theory and practice of mediation and conflict resolution including lawyers, counselors, therapists, psychologists, and social workers will find Narrative Mediation more faithfully address the realities of mediation practice than traditional approaches. By examining the discourses surrounding the conflict situation, both mediators and disputants will emerge from the resolution process with a greater understanding of the biases and assumptions they hold in regards to the conflict itself. Through a process of uncovering and questioning these biases and assumptions, the participants will emerge with a renewed sense of the origins of the conflict and a renewed sense of alternative approaches or solutions to the conflict. Although the authors consider the narrative mediation approach as an alternative to interest based mediation practices, this new approach could be used in conjunction with more traditional practices to discover the ways in which our interests, positions, and view of the conflict is shaped by social forces and discourses. In sum, practitioners and disputants alike will find much of value in this book and will hopefully find a number of key insights that will assist them in moving beyond difficult conflict situations.