Underlying Philosophies of Mediation: Philosophy 2 – Supporting Empowerment

Underlying Philosophies of Mediation - Empowerment

Supporting empowerment is a continuous aim of effective conflict resolution and so forms one of the 6 Underlying Philosophies of Mediation.

If a conflict has an imposed ‘solution’ it is unlikely to be sustainable as those directed by the imposed solution will not own it or have a commitment to it. They may also not understand it or agree with it. An imposed solution is like putting a lid on a boiling pot. It has to be permanently watched to check it has not boiled over and until something is done to put out the fire, more and more effort has to go into keeping the lid on.

The relationship is strong and inseparable between the first of the philosophies of mediation, Ownership, and this one,  and if a mediator considers that seeking to support empowerment is an important aspect of what mediation provides, it is essential their practise and the way in which mediation is used within any given context ensures ownership is a crucial consideration.

But what is empowerment? In the context of mediation it could be described as follows:

Empowerment Empowerment is the process through which someone who feels unable to change something in their life is supported in creating ways of doing so. When only one way of responding is used it is more a ‘reaction’. When more responses are created there is a choice and through having a choice there is empowerment. There is a move from a position of ‘stuckness’ to a state of recognition of being able to create a new way forward with a difficulty they are experiencing. Within unresolved conflict situations people move from feeling as if they are  a victim (often equated with feeling ‘powerless’) to being a co-creator or even the sole creator of a new, more effective response to their situation – they create any or all of the ‘3 Cheers for Conflict’ – Learning, Connection, Insight.

Someone who is empowered does not see others as crucial to that creation and so are not dependent on others to change in order for them to be able to resolve their experience of a conflict. The decision about whether a situation is resolved or not is theirs alone and is not assessed or decided by others. If a ‘resolution’ is not felt to be so by the person experiencing the unresolved conflict it has not arisen through their empowerment but through an imposed or ‘engineered’ solution from an external source. 

For some mediators this provides a particular challenge to their mediation practise and the notion also challenges many of the contexts in which mediation is used. Some mediation practises involve approaches which seek to ‘fix’ clients’ difficult situations for them rather than support them in creating their own resolution. And justifications are often given by mediators who use such approaches that a ‘result’ is needed. My question to any mediators who express such a view is:

‘How is mediation practised in that way different to other processes such as consultancy, legal representation, arbitration or other processes where a difficulty or challenge is passed over to someone else to ‘fix’ ?’  

If mediation is an alternative to other such processes, there is an ambiguity regarding whether it does actually provide an alternative where practises described as mediation and the contexts in which it is used do not support empowerment and do not expect or respect ownership of and responsibility to resolve a difficulty as resting with those whose difficulty it is.

Features of mediation practise which support empowerment include:

1. A commitment from the mediator to not give advice or make suggestions regarding possible ways forward in the difficult situation. – sometimes I have met mediators who say that a little suggestion or advice is fine ‘if the parties seem stuck’ or ‘because they need help’. These comments seem  to overlook how they undermine the whole point of mediation as an alternative form of conflict resolution in that suggestions or advice transform the process from one of facilitation to one of giving solutions. They can be as much based on the mediator’s ‘need’ for a ‘result’ as on any real benefit for the participants and so the process then becomes one of ‘leading’ participants to a ‘solution’ – ultimately this is no different to consultancy or advice work and it has to be asked what the point is of expecting participants to sit and try to work through their difficulty if the mediator is going to give a view and a suggested ‘solution’.

These practises are often reflected in the language a mediator may use in that they will say ‘I resolved their dispute’ rather than ‘I mediated a dispute today and the participants said mediation helped them resolve it’. Giving a view or advice also risks inducing the participants to start to ‘make a case’ to the mediator in order to gain a ‘favourable view’ from them. If this is a practise that is acceptable to the mediator the process ceases to be non-adversarial and so the whole point of mediation is lost.

2.The use of open, exploratory questions and open questions to support creative thinking rather than closed, leading questions to try to ‘guide’ the participants to the mediator’s view of how to ‘fix’ the situation. – When we train mediators we use an exercise called ‘The Questioning Exercise’ where the trainees sit in a horseshoe with an individual at the mouth of the horseshoe who role plays (or sometimes ‘real plays’) being someone with a difficulty of some kind. The trainees are asked not to give advice or make suggestions, not to give opinions and not to use leading questions. What is left for them to use is listening, summarising and questioning in the form of open questions. The aim is to help the individual think through their difficulty and reflect on their thoughts and feelings about it and to be supported in creating a way forward that feels more constructive/effective/positive for them. The practise supports empowerment through helping the individual create choices in a situation where usually they have felt stuck and powerless. It is very easy to spot when a trainee has their own ‘fix’ in mind for ‘solving’ the person’s problem as they start to use closed, leading questions that seek to lead the individual to outcomes they have not themselves wanted to explore. As a result there can be a ‘tussle’ between the individual and the trainees about what the outcome ‘should’ be. Ownership is not respected or expected for the individual. Once I saw the situation reach a stage where the trainees came to a halt as the individual did not wish to go where they were trying to lead them. The trainees said the individual was ‘stuck’ – not acknowledging it was in fact they who were stuck because they were not supporting the individual in taking their own path but were trying to ‘lead’ them to their  solution, often with very little exploration of what the individual actually wanted. It was quickly decided that the individual had no idea what they could do to improve their situation (rather than that they were not assisted in exploring ideas) and so the ‘fix’ was quickly brought in.

This is an excellent exercise to help trainee mediators learn to reflect on their own wish or tendency to push people towards their own agenda rather than respect and support the participants’ capacity to create their own answers.

3. The acceptance that a neat ‘result’ may not be the outcome of a mediation but that the process of enabling a sharing of experiences and of promoting the possibility of communication between disputants can support them in taking further steps by themselves towards a more effective, co-operative relationship.  If a mediator provides a process that ‘requires’ an outcome it is not respecting the choices of those involved in the mediation to use the process towards whatever they feel is best for their situation. If they wish to simply ‘vent’ at each other for an hour or so but through so doing gain a better understanding of each other’s perspective and why certain issues have come to a head in the past then that is often a constructive use of the time available in mediation. There may not be a neat ‘result’ arising from that but the participants have gained much from the process and know more about why their difficulty has arisen. I have seen such an outcome often in neighbour disputes, workplace disputes and even complaints made by patients about Doctors and Dentists.


The purpose of mediation is to help participants create a resolution that works for them. Where there are external ‘requirements’ for a particular form of outcome such as an ‘agreement’ they are to the detriment of the process in that they can distract from what participants may feel is more important to address and can easily lead to a ‘hoop jumping exercise’  of ‘going to mediation and making an agreement’. This view of mediation can often be heard in contexts where mediation is seen as only an ‘expected’ activity as a stage within another process such as a grievance procedure or complaints procedure or even, now, in the UK divorce proceedings.

External requirements for a ‘result’ do not support empowerment of participants in mediation a) because they have not themselves decided it is what they want and b) they distract from the other possible outcomes of mediation that can simply mean a better understanding of each other or a different way of doing things in the future unilaterally – not involving an agreement –  or some kind of self-realisation regarding how they have felt or responded or thought about the other person or situation (Learning, Connection or Insight). The role of the mediator is to provide a ‘safe space’ in which those external expectations are only brought in if the parties let them in rather than for the mediation process itself to be a tool for imposing them. How could that fit with the idea of supporting empowerment? Where such expectations exist an enormous opportunity for learning and change is lost.

4. An acknowledgement that the dispute is owned by the participants and is not the mediator’s dispute. The disputants have a vastly greater understanding of their difficult situation and the context in which it is playing out and a mediator’s brief introduction to the situation does not make them an ‘expert’ in it such that they can come up with a ‘fix’. Nor is it their role to do so. This again relates to the idea that mediation is an alternative means of responding to unresolved conflict that does not involve outside intervention but is a process that supports those directly involved in creating the resolution to the situation themselves. Puzzlingly I come across situations where mediators describe having analysed a difficult situation and come to a solution of their own creation or given a view about the situation based on their ‘expertise in the field’ and then seek to direct or lead or even guide (words in italics being those I have often heard used) the participants to their idea for a resolution rather than devote their energies to helping participants create their own outcomes.

I once heard a mediator describe how he deferred to a parent’s solicitor in a mediation regarding a special educational needs dispute because he found the solicitor ‘more reasonable’ than the parent. I find such practises or beliefs that this is acceptable in mediation to be unfortunate, but, more importantly, they are ignoring one of the fundamental purposes and underlying philosophies of mediation – to support those in dispute in empowering themselves to resolve their conflicts. The mediator’s own difficulty in working with the parent led to his setting aside the purpose of mediation and instead it became a tool to suppress a parent’s expression of their dissatisfaction with the present provision of special education for their child. His own subjective perception of the parent was portrayed as an ‘expert view’ about the situation and so the process provided was contrary to its intended role. I have never had a ‘difficulty’ with a participant in mediation as I am not present to give a view or go against, or for, any participant’s wishes or views in a dispute. My role is to acknowledge that they have a difficulty, to help them explore what is possible from their perspective and to enable both/all parties involved to come to their own decision about  the best way forward with that. This leads into the next feature of mediation that supports empowerment of participants……

5. The mediator’s role is to support effective communication and creative thinking towards the resolution of conflict in whatever form it takes in the difficult situation being mediated. The role is  not to provide assessment, diagnosis and prescription of ‘the answer’ to the difficulties faced. This can be provided by other service providers such as consultants, arbitrators, lawyers, medical practitioners and other ‘experts in the field’ who provide a solution for people. Mediation helps people to create the resolution of their conflict themselves. This is not a criticism of the use of experts it is about being clear what mediation is and what it is not because often there seems to be ambiguity, even for some mediators.

6. The mediator’s role is not to ‘understand’ the problem it is to help participants understand themselves and each other through the use of listening, summarising and questioning. How could a mediator understand the issues that lead to a relationship or communication breakdown, complaint or other unresolved conflict existing between two or more people in the short time frame they spend with those involved?  To support the empowerment of those in dispute to create outcomes that work for them, their role is to provide the process of mediation as effectively as possible,  not to focus on understanding the dispute beyond what is needed to facilitate the process.

reiki Choku ReiI find it a little amusing but also a little worrying that the above features of practise are sometimes described as ‘naive’, or ‘looking for perfection’ or ‘alright in theory but not in practise’, particularly when it is said by other mediators, when I and many of my colleagues who work in mediation have been practising in this way for many, many years without difficulty, without crashing into a reality that says it is not possible to practise in this way.

What is needed in order to practise in a way that supports empowerment is a commitment to the discipline of self-reflection and ongoing development of the ways in which we communicate as mediators, how we conduct ourselves in order to remain impartial and the beliefs we have about people and their ability to create their own answers to their difficulties whether via mediation or otherwise.

These Underlying Philosophies of Mediation provide a rigorous basis on which to build mediation practise.  I sometimes  come across situations where mediation is practised in ways that do not seem to have a rigour or discipline, which in turn is confusing for participants as well as providing an ambiguous message for potential users of the process regarding what mediation actually is.

If we are to provide mediation effectively we also need to be willing to challenge the context in which mediation is offered where it contradicts the purpose of the process. So, as an example, the idea of ‘compulsory mediation’ which I’ve said elsewhere is effectively an oxymoron. Mediation has to be a voluntary process if it is to support empowerment and respect and expect ownership of a difficulty. If it does not have those features it becomes a ‘fixing’ process and so provides nothing new amongst the range of fixing processes already in existence.

Consider this quote from John Bird, founder of the Big Issue in the book Everyday Legends

When we started out there were literally hundreds of charities just in London alone for the benefit of the homeless. I didn’t want to do a charity because charities piss me off. The ones I met were full of ‘nice’ people who were totally sentimental about homeless people and I wasn’t interested in sentimentalism because I thought the world was a shit hole. I thought homeless people were treated abysmally, especially by themselves, and that charities were not tough enough to say to homeless people ‘Look you’re causing these problems yourself. The world screws you over, but you’ve got to sort yourself out.’

The charities we met were all about giving homeless people another handout rather than giving them the one thing that they needed: opportunity. Opportunity to a homeless person is a job; in fact what keeps most of us from falling to pieces. Work gives you social association, friendships, a sense of responsibility, and the chance of making your own money so that you don’t have to ponce off the state and ponce off your parents.

Mediation, in my experience and understanding, follows a similar expectation – it provides opportunity, not a ‘handout’ or ‘fix’. I am not a mediator to solve someone’s dispute for them, my role is to help them to resolve it themselves. It is not my dispute. I go home at the end of the day, while the people I mediate are left with their situation. It is their dispute, and it’s up to them to resolve it, I am involved to support their attempts at doing so, to support their empowerment.

If the commitment to supporting empowerment is forgotten in mediation, it has to be questioned who the process is really for and what level of effectiveness we can really expect for it.


Read about all of the 6 Underlying Philosophies of Mediation:

1. Ownership

2. Empowerment

3. Impartiality

4. No-blame approach

5. Confidentiality 

6. An ‘Adult-Adult’ relationship with clients not a ‘Parent-Child’ relationship 


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