The Future of Mediation
By John Ford
"If civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships - the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together, in the same world at peace."
Franklin D. Roosevelt
A coach once asked me to predict which way a drop of water would go around a rock up ahead. Of course there is no way of knowing: the water drop may not make it due to evaporation to the atmosphere, absorption by the river bank, and then if it does make it to the rock, whether it goes left or right, over or below. However, even if the future is uncertain, we can still comment on where the drop of water is at the moment. Even its relationship to our imagined future. And of course about its past.
When did mediation start?
I wonder when the first human chose not to resolve a conflict or dispute of others by telling them the solution but supporting them to find their own. Especially where they had power to impose (make and enforce) a solution. And how many such interventions have been made through the course of human time.
Mediation is both an idea and a process. As an idea it promotes self-responsibility and embraces self-determination. It believes in the ability of humans to take care of their own lives. As a process it has evolved to a point where there are many difference approaches (facilitative, transformative, narrative, party directed, and evaluative) that all use the term mediation to define how the idea is brought to life.
The field of mediation
The idea and process of mediation appear to be enjoying an expansive phase in their history. A self-organized field of mediation has gained self-awareness of the uniqueness of the process and the importance of its role. Some call it a profession. International and regional membership associations for mediators that create voluntary standards of conduct are common.
Debate amongst proponents of different approaches at conferences of professionals who self-identify as mediators is lively. For the most part mediation has been based on intuitive insights of how to resolve conflicts - coupled with reflective practice. More recently we are seeing the emergence of an evidence based or scientific approach to mediation knowledge.
Mediation in contemporary society
Mediation continues to be practiced in many diverse ways around the world both by professional and community members. Mediation has found fertile ground as an idea in many legal systems. The motivation has been varied. Some have advanced more practical social benefits like cost savings while others point to the quality of the decision made in mediation, and more abstract values like self-determination.
The field of mediation has created specializations in a variety of areas such as family, workplace, elder, environmental, commercial and the like. And some professions like HR, realtors, and hospital administrators who routinely find themselves at the intersection of conflict have also started to embrace and internalize the process (skill) of mediation.
Governments of the world are increasingly including mediation as part of the resolution process to address civil right disputes especially in labor, employment and family arenas. Some even provide the mediator’s.
While there is a growing general awareness of mediation, specific awareness of mediation as a valuable or indeed as an applicable option, is low.
One way we venture into the future is through vision statements. Like Roosevelt, my vision is world peace. My only question is how long will it take?
Clearly we are not there now, and as result I anticipate that the popularity of mediation as an idea and process will expand and contract cyclically but with a steady incline as we get closer to world peace.
And in my vision, peace is not the absence of conflict. At this point mediation and other collaborative, non-aggressive processes will have become the norm. The violent and adversarial past will be something people read about and find hard to comprehend!
Humans are getting less violent and yet continue to invest in aggressive and violent approaches to conflict resolution.
In the more short term I anticipate more scrutiny of the mediation process, especially in the legal context, with developments being more evidence based than intuitive. The courts will be rich learning grounds for insights, in part because the participants will test the limits of competition within a collaborative frame of reference, such that mediation provides.
Where I see the biggest opportunity however, is not in the legal system. I believe that the biggest role mediation has to play, is as a process that is institutionalized within the social fabric of our interactions with one another, not just when we are at the court house steps, but when our differences are first emerging, wherever we happen to be.
However, given the current low social awareness of the value or applicability of mediation, education of both end users but also providers will be crucial. I see this as an ongoing challenge. For example, currently in the United States, most HR professionals know about mediation but believe that it is something that other professionals do.
Interestingly, the largest professional membership organization for HR professionals in the world, the Society for Human Resource Management, has established competency standards for certification that expect senior leaders to be able to mediate difficult situations among employees.
As this happens, and similar positive developments take place in schools, businesses, clubs and homes we will seed the slow ongoing improvement in the ability of humans to live together in peace with others. Mediation will continue to have an important role to play.