Reflection on Training: An Introduction to the Power of Transformative Mediation

by Lehn Robinson

I had the privilege of participating in the June 19th 3-day, 20-hour training in Transformative Mediation, which I took as a refresher for the earlier skills I picked up at a 45-hour training I took two years ago. I always try to approach trainings with an open mind, a blank slate, but I was struck nevertheless by some distinct differences between the earlier training and this one taught by Louise Phipps Senft.

In the Community Mediation training I took in 2011, they really seek to state the underlying feelings and values that motivate the topics being discussed, requiring mediators to intuit words and phrases that capture the essence of the conflicts. By contrast, the transformative approach hinges on reflecting each participant’s own language back to him or her, without the mediator editorializing or changing the speaker’s words. “How is that transformative?” At first blush, it felt simple, perhaps too simple, I thought. “Who wants to hear back, verbatim, what they just said?” As it turns out, this is exactly what people who are deep in emotionally-charged conflict want. It is the simplicity of the reflection that sets transformative mediation apart.

These people have sought out mediation because they’ve reached an impasse, they’re too at-odds to communicate, to hear each other or to be heard. What I’d failed to comprehend is that, when people are in conflict, the words they choose are the most effective window into that conflict. For some, they sharpen their language and choose every word carefully. For others, they become so impassioned that they don’t truly hear themselves. In either case, a mediator’s strongest resource is that very language, direct from the lips of the participants. Therein lies the strength of the transformative approach to reflection. Hearing one’s own words back is a potent and disarming mirror; there is no simpler technique to elicit both, “Yes, Exactly!” and “Did I really just say that?” and all without putting words in the mouths of the participants. That specificity becomes essential as the mediator draws up an agreement between parties because it ensures that the document reflects the exact sentiments expressed by everyone involved, rather than approximations that fail to capture each party’s particular needs.

Initially, I’d had some impression that the eponymous “transformation” occurred within the language of the participants, or that there was some change the mediator was responsible for bringing about, but that transformation comes from within. The truth is that the mediator is a steward, a guide that leads each party back to him or herself. Transformative mediation is a process of holding space, gently redirecting the attention and emotion of the participants back on themselves and each other. It is in those moments of self-reflection—for each individual and for the group as a whole—that transformation occurs. It cannot be forced, and the transformative approach acknowledges as much, allowing agreements and tentative plans to arise organically, from the words and the wills of the participants, and they do, time after time. Before this training, I’d had a distinct sense that a mediator has a responsibility to do something, but now I’d say the most important thing is to simply be: present, engaged, and unabashedly candid. There are so often great gulfs between what we say and how we are heard. Participants come to mediation full of questions. After this training, I’m starting to see that most question-askers already have their answers. I’d like to thank Louise Phipps Senft and everyone from Baltimore Mediation.