Cate Malek
Heidi Burgess

October 2005

Defining Recognition

The word recognition is most often used in conflict resolution to mean acknowledging and empathizing with another. It is one of the key ingredients of transformative mediation as described by Robert Bush and Joseph Folger in their book, The Promise of Mediation. According to Bush and Folger, recognition is a process of acknowledging one's adversary as a human being with his or her own legitimate situation and concerns. It is something one gives, not something one gets. Bush and Folger write,

The hallmark of recognition is letting go---however briefly or partially---of one's focus on self and becoming interested in the perspective of the other party as such, concerned about the situation of the other as a human being, not as an instrument for fulfilling one's own needs." [1](See, also humanization.)

Some signs that recognition has occurred are:

  • The party moves from self-absorption to attentiveness to others.
  • The party becomes more open, more receptive, more responsive, and
  • The party exercises and strengthens their capacity for responsiveness to others. [2]

Why Recognition Is Needed

Intractable conflict tends to cause parties to feel both more vulnerable and more self-absorbed. As the parties interact, these feelings feed upon each other, creating a vicious circle (see enemy images and dehumanization). Transformative mediation is based on the belief that people have the capacity to regain their footing and shift back to a restored sense of self-confidence and empathy with their opponent (recognition). These positive feelings also feed upon each other, creating a constructive, connecting, and humanizing interaction. In this kind of mediation, the transformation of the relationship between the two parties matters more than resolving the conflict, though the latter often occurs as a result of the former. [3]

Empowerment and Recognition

In order for recognition to occur, parties must first be empowered. Once the parties feel free to make their own decisions, then they can choose whether they want to recognize their opponents or not. If the parties are not empowered, meaningful recognition is unlikely to occur. "Forced recognition," write Bush and Folger, "is a contradiction in terms." [3] Given the importance of empowerment, transformative mediators allow the parties to choose how much they want to recognize the views of the opponent. Sometimes recognition will lead to completereconciliation between disputants. On the other hand, parties may be willing to suspend self-interest only momentarily, or not at all.

Recognizing Opportunities for Transformation

In order to foster recognition, mediators must pay attention to slight changes in the parties' attitudes. In one of his speeches, Folger recalled a missed chance for recognition. He was working with two teenage girls who were both leaders of gangs at their high school in Queens. The two gangs had been fighting violently for some time over a dirty look one of the leaders had given the other at a basketball game. Folger had some of his students observing him while he conducted the mediation.

The conflict seemed doomed to escalate because both sides felt the need to retaliate. Neither wanted to be the last side attacked. Folger attempted to have the two girls think through the consequences of their actions, what would happen if the violence continued to escalate, but the girls did not seem to be changing their minds. Eventually Folger began to throw out options including changing high schools. The girls were not interested in any of the possible solutions and, in the end, very little progress was made in the mediation.

After the session, Folger met with his students to discuss the mediation and they were very critical. They pointed out that instead of empowering the two girls to work through the conflict themselves, he had tried to hard to direct the mediation. Even if the students had changed high schools, the conflict could still have continued in the malls or the streets. Folger had been pushing his own solutions instead of asking the girls for ideas. Furthermore, he had focused on resolving the conflict rather than transforming the relationship between the two parties.

What the students thought Folger should have focused on was the fact that both girls were mothers and that, at one point, one of the girls had suggested that they not attack each other while holding their children. Folger had ignored this comment because it seemed so trivial compared to the increasing violence of the conflict. If he had focused on it, it may have become a catalyst for the girls to acknowledge their common motherhood, which could have become a point of recognition. Although it was a small thing, this recognition could have helped move the mediation forward, or at least could have affected the way the two girls interacted with each other. [4]

Long-Term Effects

As with empowerment, the effect of recognition in transformative mediation is meant to extend beyond a particular conflict and into the parties' everyday lives. In the long term, achieving recognition in transformative mediation should help expand parties' ability and willingness to relate to others in a more understanding and considerate way. [5]

Overall, recognition is an optimistic concept. The power of recognition is that it helps people find the best parts of themselves and others and then use those parts to improve their situations. As Bush and Folger write, "When [recognition is] combined with empowerment, parties are helped to use conflicts as opportunities for moral growth, and the transformative potential of mediation is realized." [6]

Political Recognition

Recognition is also used in a political sense to mean the acknowledgement of a nation-state's sovereignty or the legitimacy of a particular ruler or governing structure. For example, for a long time, the U.S. refused to recognize Mao as the leader of China, insisting that the legitimate leader was Chang Kai Chek. China, on the other hand, has never recognized Taiwan as distinct from China, insisting that it is part of China and should be ruled by the mainland government. Even the U.S. does not now (in 2005) recognize Taiwan as a separate, sovereign nation-state, although it does insist that the dispute between Taiwan and Mainland China cannot be resolved through force.

Political recognition also applies to other entities, such as "national liberation organizations" that are not technically nation states. For example, before Oslo, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were stymied because Israel refused to recognize the legitimacy of the PLO and would not meet with or negotiate with (even through shuttle diplomacy) Yasser Arafat, whom they considered a terrorist. (And they had a strict policy of never negotiating with terrorists). Instead they tried to negotiate with other PLO "leaders," but all these negotiations failed because these supposed leaders had no authority to agree to anything, and always had to check back with PLO leadership, often with Arafat himself, who was not willing to make concessions when he wasn't even allowed to be "at the table." Later, the Israelis did begin working with the PLO in the Oslo negotiations, which resulted in the 1993 Oslo Accords. These did not "stick," of course, but they did establish the legitimacy of the PLO and Arafat as a (if not "the") recognized leader of the Palestinian people (though it did not recognize "Palestine" as a nation-state).

These two meanings of the word "recognition" are thus completely unrelated, but they both indicate a relationship between parties, be they individuals, groups, or nations, that is important for effective cooperation and/or negotiation.


[1] Robert A. Bush and Joseph P. Folger, The Promise of Mediation, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass), 1994, 97.

[2] Brenda Reed, "Empowerment & Recognition in Mediation," [available at:, 2004.]

[3] "The Transformative Framework," Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation Website, 2004. [available at:]

[4] The Promise of Mediation, p. 93

[5] Joseph Folger, "Into the Woods: Mediation in its Adolescence," Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation Website, speech given in May, 1998. Available here.

[6] The Promise of Mediation, p. 93

[7] ibid., p. 2.

Use the following to cite this article:
Malek, Cate and Heidi Burgess. "Recognition." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: October 2005 <>.

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