Musings on the mediator's job

mediator's job

I’ve been working my way through research notes for my upcoming book and today came across these excerpts on the mediator’s job from Winslade and Monk’s 2000 classic, Narrative Mediation. If you’re a mediator and you haven’t read it, you ought to. They have several worthy sequels, too.

“If mediation is about creating new meanings in a dispute where existing meanings have become stale or stuck, then deconstructive listening and deconstructive questioning are useful tools in this creative task…The mediator’s task is to unpack the suitcase and take out the pieces and hold them up for view by the parties. This unpacking involving adopting a naive posture and asking questions, not so much about the hidden depths of the suitcase but about the obvious and ordinary aspects of the baggage that comes with the dispute.”

“…the mediator is not listening to the stories people tell with a view to sifting out the facts or the truth from among the details of what people say. Such an aim risks communicating a subtle disrespect for people’s stories. It sets them up as falsehoods gained by personal bias and implies a process of replacing people’s stories with a higher truth based on a more rational objective account. The alternative stance is to listen to people as experts on their own lives.”

Your thoughts?

Print Friendly

Enjoy this article?

Join thousands worldwide who subscribe to my actionable weekly updates. You'll get my Conflict Pivot Worksheet, Chapter 1 of my latest book, and more.


  1. says

    How can anyone think they can sift out facts or “truth” from people speaking? They are speaking from a perspective, and often with an agenda. Isn’t the object to find a common language or conduit and have to interpret as little as possible?

    • says

      I think your training speaks for itself, Terri! There are plenty of mediators out there trained to focus on “facts” and fact-finding. You and I aren’t among them but that approach to mediation is fairly well-entrenched in the U.S.

  2. says

    I loved that book, and still do. One of the books that really rocked my own sense of who I am (as a collaborative lawyer) and just what I thought I was doing. Winslade and Monk, together with Bernard Mayer’s Beyond Neutrality reveal a range of roles that mediators can play in service of their disputant clients, going so much further than Mrs or Mr Fixit. The challenge is are we as service providers able to hold that complexity? If we see ourselves as settlement enablers then that is simple to understand and to portray. We face challenges in communicating the more nuanced roles… or do we, I wonder?

    What if we ask clients what our role is to be?

    “So what role would you like me to play here? Would you like me to resolve this for you or to hear what each of you have to say, and to enable you to be heard by one another as you work this through?”

    …ponders, and I’ve got work to do.

    Final point; Winslade and Monk have a short volume looking at Narrative Mediation (Counselling) in schools. Now, *that* book moved me to tears with its portrayal of transformative work in action.

    • says

      I agree, Neil. One of my beefs with certain “schools” of mediation is that they deem it the mediator’s job to decide what work is to be done…I think the client gets to decide what kind of outcome they seek. The job of “mediator,” as I pointed out in my book, needs to expand beyond something that starts with an opening statement, ends with a closing statement, and follows a certain sequence depending on how one was trained!

  3. Janice Witcombe says

    That was my biggest learning point when I began training in mediation – listen to the issues not the facts.

  4. says

    Real good post, Tammy. I have a good friend, James Keeley, who is a fantastic healer, trainer and consultant. He says you want to listen to someone with an intuitive ear toward “What is it like to be them? What is their experience of their life?” I find these guidelines to be powerful and to the point, and they tend to naturally remove or at least lessen our interpretation. It puts the “facts” in perspective.

    Thanks for great discussion, Tammy.

    • says

      I really like that orientation to the work, Stuart — brilliant questions/insights from your friend James. Thanks so much for sharing them. Hope things are going well with getting your book into many hands!