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Narrative mediation

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Prevailing orientation on mediation

In 2001 the book Narrative Mediation: A New Approach to Conflict Resolution by John Winslade and Gerald Monk appeared. This book describes an orientation on mediation that is quite different from the prevailing orientation on mediation which basically assumes that each individual has certain interests which they translate into positions and viewpoints that sometimes collide with those of other people. An incompatibility of positions and viewpoints causes conflict. Often people are not aware of other people's interests, because they focus on their positions and mainly communicate positions and viewpoints instead of interests. The mediator's role is to look for underlying interests by encouraging parties to exchange information, to improve communication and to facilitate negotiating. This orientation on mediation is often referred to as interest-based or problem solving mediation.

Narrative orientation on mediation

Narrative mediation views conflicts differently. In narrative mediation the stories that people tell in order to shape their worlds, are important. By telling stories of events and by giving meaning to these events people construct their own reality. A different story leads to a different reality. In this way people also give meaning to their social relations.

Culture plays an important part in the stories people tell. The way we think about marriage, the use of violence, gossiping at work, the way a conflict should be resolved, et cetera, are not only determined by our own views but also by the culture of which we are part. This does not mean that views on these subjects never change. Culture is not something static, dominant culturally determined and coloured stories are constantly shifting and therefore views on marriage, conflict resolution, work ethics, et cetera change over time.

Mediators working with narrative principles in a way try to rewrite the stories that parties tell. A basic assumption is that for every dominant conflict story there is an alternative story of trust and cooperation available and possible. Space needs to be opened up to develop these alternative stories and the mediator's task is help people explore this space and find the building stones of a story of trust and cooperation.

The roots of narrative mediation can be found in social constructionism, a philosophical movement founded on the premise that, by reflecting on our experiences, we construct our own understanding of the world we live in. Each of us generates our own "rules" and "mental models," which we use to make sense of our experiences.


Opening up space for an alternative story is closely connected to a phenomenon called positioning. People that interact take up positions themselves and by doing so position the people they interact with. An employer for instance who says that certain emotions do not belong on the workfloor positions his employees in a position that only allows a businesslike attitude. Someone who says that things at work have always been done in a certain way, does not allow much room to someone who wants to introduce innovations.

For people in conflict positioning can have a paralysing effect, certainly when someone is put in a position that does not leave much room for acting in a different way. However, another assumption of narrative mediation is that people do not have to accept the positioning they are not happy about. People have agency, i.e. they may refuse to be placed in positions that limit the space they need and they may act in ways that offers them more space.

Often the dominant conflict story puts both parties in positions that does not leave much room for a relationship of trust and cooperation. The mediator may use the concepts of positioning and agency to open up space and to make a different relationship possible. In the alternative story parties and mediator together create a relationship in which parties position each other in a way that does not hamper opportunities for having a relationship which both parties find satisfying.


Deconstruction techniques

Making use of positioning is one of the techniques mediators may use in order to develop an alternative story. There are other ways in which a mediator can deconstruct the dominant story and help create room for the emergence of an alternative story.

Examples of so-called deconstruction techniques are externalizing and looking for exceptions to the dominant story. Externalizing can best be described as a technique that helps parties see the problem as something that stands between them instead of something that is placed inside themselves. The conflict or the problem is something that blocks the way to a future of working together and trusting each other. A future that people in conflict often want but do not know how to make possible. By seeing the conflict in this light, they start cooperating in order to remove this obstacle.

Each conflict story has its inconsistencies. Someone who says that the other party has never shown any respect, only tells stories that illustrate this lack of respect. The mediator may ask if this person remembers events when he had the feeling that the other did show some sort of respect. Events like these help create the alternative story. By exploring these events, by asking about the meaning that people give to these events the mediator lays the foundation for a different reality.

Narrative mediation in the Netherlands

Narrative mediation is hardly known in the Netherlands. In cooperation with Alter Mediation & Conflict Management, the Conflict Management Expert Centre would like to contribute to the further development of this orientation on mediation, because we are convinced that narrative mediation is a valuable addition to the current practice of mediation in the Netherlands and because we believe that the mediation profession will benefit from the availability of expertise and experience in this this fascinating and promising field.

John Winslade, grondlegger narratieve mediation
John Winslade: one of the founders of narrative mediation

In the spring of 2004 we came into contact with John Winslade, one of the founders of narrative mediation and co-author of the book mentioned above. In the summer of 2005 we hope to organize a workshop on narrative mediation with John Winslade, who - during a workshop in Denmark on narrative mediation that the Conflict Management Expert Centre took part in - turned out to be a gifted teacher and an inspiring trainer.

We believe that narrative mediation offers important techniques and applications that can be used in other contexts than mediation. Of course narrative principles are used in narrative therapy, but these principles can also be used in coaching people who have the need to talk about the conflict they are in but who are not willing to mediate or who do not feel that confrontation with the orther person will be the most appropriate way of dealing with the conflict.