Extreme Mediation

I have long been drawn to forms of mediation that are more direct and transformative for the participants and make real differences in people’s lives or in the effectiveness of large-group processes. Most of us are taught mediation in a style that is ultra-facilitative; we are allowed only to elicit the participants’ own thoughts and ideas and are taught never to step in with any part of ourselves or our own ideas or suggestions. Asking questions, providing structure for dialogue, and thoughtful silences are used to guide the participants through a process of their own making.

Most likely, this is a good way to learn. When you’re inexperienced and working with people in volatile and vulnerable circumstances, such as divorce and custody proceedings, it’s critical that you proceed as carefully as possible. Above all, it is important to guide people to their own solutions rather than one of yours that they may seize upon in the moment but later decide doesn’t suit them. It also helps curb the problem-solving tendencies that most of us learn as experts in our chosen field pre-mediation, forcing us to step back and help others help themselves.

On the other hand, as one becomes more experienced, one finds that there are many cases in which a purely facilitative approach does not cut it. It simply does not get the job done, especially in highly complex and controversial situations. It’s just too much like that therapist who always sits back and says, “and how did that make you FEEL?” There are times when you are chosen by a group to carry a message, consciously or unconsciously, because you are the only person who feels safe enough to do it. Or when they are so muddled and the process is so complex that only a person who stands somewhat outside of it can see the common thread or a set of possible solutions.

Then there’s the contradiction between the hiring process for facilitators/mediators, which has become very content- and expertise-specific, and the idea that we are not supposed to inject any of that knowledge or expertise into the process. Generally, the groups we work with expect us to help them in more direct ways than the theoreticians of our profession believe is appropriate, particularly since few groups have the funds to hire both content and process experts when they can get both in one person. One of my greatest skills is synthesizing the work of a group into a coherent, consensus product – which goes well beyond where many “authorities” in the field would have us go, yet I know it is of great value to my clients.

One of my favorite books in the field is Extreme Facilitation: Guiding Groups through Controversy and Complexity. This is all about applying creativity, flexibility, and adaptability to the needs of the parties or the group and crafting a process that works for them. When purely facilitative approaches will do the trick, great. When you need to step in and cut through the muddle, do it. Use every technique at your disposal to help move the situation. Practitioners who get stuck in only one box can find themselves quite at a loss when that approach doesn’t work, as is so often the case in my primary field of environmental mediation.

In addition to environmental work, I do divorce mediations – partly because I am apparently the only professional family mediator in my community, and I feel like it is a necessary public service. However, I do get discouraged that our skills are only called into use at the point where couples have already decided to divorce. While I know that helping two people end their marriage on a positive and constructive note is a valuable service, especially when kids are involved, I know that it would be even more valuable to help people before it gets that far. Not to mention that we have so many disputes and conflicts in daily life, and people don’t even consider mediation. Perhaps it’s because it seems too formal, too expensive, too… something. Like therapy (that comparison again).

Recently, I read a blog that inspired me like nothing has in a long time, about a man who mediates in half-hour sessions at Burning Man. Half an hour – wow. He’s designed a process that dispenses with, well, a lot of the process that bogs down those interminable approaches you learn as a volunteer in divorce court. He sets up his booth right in Burning Man, and takes all comers. Anything and everything gets mediated, in keeping with the principle of radical inclusion that the festival espouses. Several things excited me about this – first, it’s short. This approach could be adapted to an hour and be really affordable – or provided for free in any number of community settings. Second, it’s accessible enough that any and all issues are brought to be mediated – including a lot of marital issues that if not addressed, could ultimately lead to divorce. Yay for getting these early! Third, I just like the idea that people would walk right by, and even if they didn’t take advantage of it, they would know it existed and could be used at any time.

Maybe I need to stop waiting for cases to come to me (they do, but always at the divorce stage), and get out into the community somehow and do these (a church, farmer’s market, YMCA, community center?). I never thought of a one-hour mediation before, but I can really see it working. It’s like a combination of zen listening, focused commitment, and directed problem-solving. I can’t wait to try it!


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