The resolution of conflict generally starts by looking backward. The parties bring their conflict to a neutral authority, whether a judge, arbitrator or mediator, providing the information necessary to allow someone to sort out who was right and who was wrong, who should pay and how much. Some practitioners in the mediation field are suggesting that mediation should be a more forward-looking process, and need not be as focused as it frequently is on the details of the conflict. When mediation instead asks the parties to think about how their lives might be better without the conflict, or about what aspects of their relationship are positive, then it can truly present an alternative way of resolving a dispute.
I heard a talk at a Southern California Mediation Association conference by a Dutch mediator Fredrike Bannink, who practices a more solution-focused method. Although she allows the parties an opportunity to say what they feel needs to be said about the underlying causes of the dispute, she concentrates on strategies that might work to resolve and prevent conflicts. Rather than asking the parties to argue their positions, she asks them questions like, What are your hopes? What difference would it make if the conflict could be resolved? What strategies are working for you? What would be the next steps to solving this problem?
Bannink illustrated her method by asking two members of the audience to role-play a divorcing couple fighting about the usual custody and property issues. She asked the pretend husband how he would rate his relationship with his wife on a scale of 1 to 10, and he gave it a 4. Many people would react to this statement by asking about all the reasons he felt the relationship was so flawed. But Bannink asked a different question: “What makes up the four?” In other words, why is it a four when it could have been a one or a two? This forced the husband to talk about feelings he had in common with his wife, such as how much they both loved their kids. Then the mediator could build on the positive aspects of the parties’ relationship to attempt to create an agreement.
This method may be a bit more difficult to apply in the situation where the parties want nothing further to do with each other after the dispute ends. But even in that situation, there may be an opportunity to explore the positive aspects of the parties’ past relationship that could form a basis for a future agreement. There is also almost always an opportunity to ask the parties to imagine what it would be like to put the conflict behind them, which is a way of asking them to focus on the solution rather than the problem that got the parties to mediation.