One of the most powerful aspects of mediation in terms of its capacity to support the resolution of conflict is that it adopts a ‘no-blame’ approach to the situation in dispute and those involved. This is one of the significant differences from other processes that can be involved in a dispute, relationship breakdown, complaint etc. Mediation is not an ‘investigation’ searching for ‘the truth’ in which one person is found to be ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong’. An investigation fits within an adversarial, competitive approach to conflict which seeks to apportion blame or fault and to establish one side as a victim or as ‘wronged’ within the situation while the other is deemed the perpetrator or ‘wrong doer’. It is an either/or outcome.
Mediation comes from the perspective that there is a shared, recognised problem and that it arises from the interactions between those involved and to try to identify the ‘source’ of the problem is an impossibility as it is within the interaction itself rather than located in an individual. The recognition that the problem exists and an openness to creating a way of resolving it is what mediation can support. The focus of the mediation is not on the individuals and the rightness or wrongness of their actions (although the participants themselves may still have a view which includes this) it is on the problem as an event or situation which exists and the process is designed to support the creation of a better way forward in whatever way the participants wish that to be. It is not an either / or outcome and can encompass an enormous range of possible outcomes limited only by the circumstances and the creativity of those involved.
Taking a no-blame approach supports all other aspects of the mediation process, for example, not seeking to find or attribute blame means the mediator has no role in deciding for or against either party and can maintain an impartial role throughout the process. Because the mediator is not ‘deciding for’ the participants a way forward and is not giving a view about their situation, ownership of the situation and any outcomes achieved via mediation remains with the participants.
A no-blame approach also allows for the process to become a future-focused process, designed to support the creation of a more acceptable future rather than to focus on the past and ‘who did what to whom and when‘ and to seek evidence to ‘prove’ this was or was not so. Such considerations are only relevant in mediation if they contribute to a more acceptable future. So for example the mediator may explore what happened that one or both/all participants are unhappy about but with a view to asking how they would like it to be responded to in the future in a way that is more acceptable or useful. The exploration is not to establish ‘truth’ or ‘blame’ it is simply to acknowledge and discuss the fact that some action or event was a problem in order to use it as a starting point for creating a better way forward in the future.
It is often the case that in difficult situations our focus can be intensely towards what or who is ‘not right’ about a situation to the detriment of consideration of how it could be better and the use of time and resources is directed towards that end. Adversarial processes entrench the former ‘what’s not right’ viewpoint as it is their intended focus, while mediation supports the creation of a better way forward as its focus. This is supported through adopting a no-blame approach. It allows for a more open, less defensive discussion of the issues involved in a dispute or complaint or relationship breakdown and a focus on improving the way things are dealt with in the future.
With a no-blame approach, the ‘wreckage’ of the previously difficult situation is used to form the foundation of the new, more effective, more acceptable way forward rather than be looked in on and scrutinised and the cause of each piece of the wreckage be allocated for blame to individuals involved. In a blame approach the wreckage is often left in place afterwards whereas in a no-blame approach it can be reshaped and re-used for a more useful purpose.
An example of how the no-blame approach of mediation assists in the resolution of complaints:
I once mediated in an National Health Service complaint made by a patient about a dentist. In the situation complained about the patient was put under general anaesthetic in order for the dentist to do some delicate work on her teeth. Unfortunately the patient moved around while anaesthatised and so the dentist was not able to do the delicate work originally intended and he was also concerned about infection, so he took more substantial action on the tooth, removing a large portion of it. On waking, the patient was particularly disappointed and unhappy about this as she had had general anaesthetic in the belief this would allow less work to have to be done on her tooth. She made a complaint via her Community Health Council representative and a series of correspondence letters then ensued between herself and her CHC representative and the dentist and his Medical Defence Union representative. Within such letters the patient was particularly upset by the descriptions of what happened by the dentist which said ‘the patient was disruptive under anaesthetic‘ and had ‘poor oral hygiene‘ and these factors necessitated the work carried out being more substantial than she had thought was necessary.
When I received the case for mediation it was my first case as a mediator of NHS Complaints having previously worked in other areas of mediation. The file was thick with correspondence (of little use to me as a mediator but given to me nonetheless) and had continued for a year without resolution. I met with both participants and they agreed to a joint meeting. The dentist explained that he had been advised by his Medical Defence Union advisor to use the terminology in his letters regarding the patient being ‘disruptive under anaesthetic‘ and having ‘poor oral hygiene‘ to avoid any allocation of blame to him for the actions he took and to use correct medical terminology at all times. The patient was upset by such a suggestion as she thought ‘How can I be disruptive if I am anaesthetised?’ and ‘I clean my teeth regularly so how can you say I have poor oral hygiene?’ The dentist was able to explain he didn’t mean she was being deliberately disruptive or ‘naughty’ it was just terminology he had been advised to use in his defence, and that the suggestion of poor oral hygiene was just an account of the possibility of infection that could ensue from doing the work he had to on her tooth. He used drawings to show what he had done and why he had chosen the action he did in the circumstances.
Given the opportunity to explain this in an environment where blame was not the focus allowed for a quick resolution of the complaint through mutual understanding rather than mutual accusations. The meeting was over in just over an hour as it was the first time they had had a chance to actually discuss the issue together and to clarify what had happened. I was quite staggered at the speed of resolution as most cases I had mediated in before had always taken at least 2-3 hours but it was easy to see why the resolution could come so quickly when the complications arising from the use of ‘defensive’ language within the correspondence in the adversarial procedures previously used were removed.
The patient had had a year of frustration and bafflement at the ‘ridiculous’ suggestions that she could be ‘disruptive’ while anaesthatised as well as being a little offended at the suggestion she had poor oral hygiene. The dentist had spent a year worrying about his reputation, frustrated at the time he had to spend writing reports and meeting with the MDU representative where the focus of the procedures involved throughout the year was on blame and the avoidance of blame, for both participants.
Accountability and responsibility
A common misconception about taking a no-blame approach is that it means ‘no-one is responsible or accountable’. Accountability and identification of responsibility may be an intrinsic part of what gets discussed in a mediation but the purpose of the process is to find out why something didn’t work even though a particular individual was thought to be or even defined to be responsible for an action but did not carry it through or did carry out an incorrect action. A blame approach would focus on and stop at the point of identifying the individual or other source of responsibility and establish proof of guilt. Learning about what could be done differently is not an important factor and often the ‘accused’ person is even kept out of the investigations as they are ‘about’ the person. In a mediation no-blame approach that person can be a central figure in the process and their valuable experience and knowledge about what happened or failed to happen can make up a large part of the ‘material’ used to create a better way forward in the future.
Additionally mediation does not serve the purpose of establishing guilt or otherwise and if needed this is still possible via the usual procedures within law or within disciplinary or other hearings. Mediation is not designed to replace such processes but it is important to recognise that it cannot serve the same purpose and maintain its role as an alternative dispute resolution process. In many instances mediation is used because the distinction between victim and perpetrator, right and wrong is ambiguous and so mediation finds usage in complaints, neighbour disputes, workplace disputes and many other areas where subjective perception of ‘right’ and wrong’ mean it is almost impossible to come to a point of proof, and even if it were possible to do so would not repair the harm arising from the damaged relationship that ensues. As the above example of an NHS complaint mediation hopefully shows, having a no-blame approach in mediation enables the concentration of resources to be directed towards promoting mutual understanding and healing of the situation rather than just on establishing ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’, something which neither participant in the case wanted but were initially unavoidably led to through the default response being to establish a complaint and corresponding defence.
And now for some Zen!
Save that it avoids picking and choosing.
Only when you stop liking and disliking
Will all be clearly understood.
A split hair’s difference,
And Heaven and Earth are set apart!
If you want to get the plain truth,
Be not concerned with right and wrong.
The conflict between right and wrong
Is the sickness of the mind.
The Way of Zen by Alan Watts.
Read about all of the 6 Underlying Philosophies of Mediation:
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