The Underlying Philosophies of Mediation
2. Empowerment

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Supporting empowerment is a continuous aim of mediation, conflict coaching and any effective conflict resolution support.

Through the commitment to ensuring that people retain ownership of the responses to their unresolved conflict during any approach to conflict resolution, there is a greater opportunity for supporting those involved to create new ways of communicating and resolving their conflict.

Frequently, there are interventions in unresolved conflict that disempower those involved in that they take the situation out of their hands and 'take over' the problem.

In complaints procedures, grievance procedures, bullying investigations and many other dispute responses there is a 'moving aside' of those directly involved and others 'step in'. This often leaves those involved marginalised or even ignored as the procedures are carried through, preventing them from taking ownership of how the situation is responded to and resolved.


What is empowerment?

It is a concept that is often seen as ambiguous or indefinable and hence pretty useless. Some think of it as just the latest 'buzz word' without it having any real meaning.

All I can do here is give an explanation of what I mean by 'empowerment' and how it is used in the context of this website and how I see it being used in the field of communication and mediation in which I work.

Empowerment is the process through which someone who feels unable to change something in their life is supported in finding ways of doing so. Through creating new ways of communicating, acting and/or perceiving their situation they move from a position of 'stuckness' to a state of being able to create a new way forward with a particular difficulty they are experiencing. Within conflict situations they move from being a victim (which is often equated with being 'powerless') to being a co-operator or even the sole operator in the creation of a new, more effective response to a difficult situation. Someone who is empowered does not see others as crucial to that creation, and so they are not dependent on others to change in order for them to respond more effectively.

An effective response will be any response which leads to a situation being less destructive, and possibly even entirely constructive.

Within this explanation, a constructive response will be one which resolves a conflict situation. The assessment of whether their response has resolved the situation or not is made by the person being assisted. No one else can decide this for them.

© Alan Sharland December 2007

It is a self-contradiction to state on someone's behalf, without their explicit consent, that they have 'been empowered', or, worse that 'we have empowered them', as in the very act of saying so, we are speaking for them and assuming the right and power to do so. How often do we presume to know we have helped someone when in their eyes, and because we have spoken for them, we may have simply entrenched their dependency and sense of powerlessness?



Think of any destructive conflict you are aware of, or involved in, or are trying to support, and please consider the following:

Any input of ideas, opinions, advice or suggestions from others serves to disempower those in dispute. These inputs all inhibit a person's capacity to resolve their dispute and to create new ways of communicating. It also distracts them from the realisation that they have the capacity to resolve their own dispute. Their ability to respond is discouraged and so they are less able to take responsibility.

It is also quite patronising and arrogant to assume people need our ideas and suggestions. We don’t live their lives each day nor do we have the same world views and fears and inclinations as them, and so what would work for us is not going to work for them.

Many Statutory and Voluntary organizations unconsciously adopt an approach which assumes that there are some people who can’t resolve their life situations themselves and so need someone else to solve their problem for them.

This is one of the ways in which the Rescuer Syndrome manifests itself in such organisations and through this, disempowerment occurs.


This article is written by Alan Sharland, Director of
CAOS Conflict Management, London, UK

Often these people are described as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘victims’ but the approach used can often seem to interpret this to mean ‘incapable’.

Not surprisingly, without an approach which encourages empowerment, many people who fall into these categories develop a dependence on the agencies and so there is a continuous increase in the demand for the agencies to be involved and provide resources and, of course, there is a corresponding increase in costs.

And yet, a review of the approach to communication used and the underlying thinking behind the approaches taken would lead to a reduction in these demands.

This is simply because ownership of the problems faced would be more appropriately shared between the agencies and their clients.... that is... Us!! rather than progressively handed over to the agencies.

Consider this quote from John Bird, founder of the Big Issue in the book Everyday Legends

When we started out there were literally hundreds of charities just in London alone for the benefit of the homeless. I didn’t want to do a charity because charities piss me off. The ones I met were full of ‘nice’ people who were totally sentimental about homeless people and I wasn’t interested in sentimentalism because I thought the world was a shit hole. I thought homeless people were treated abysmally, especially by themselves, and that charities were not tough enough to say to homeless people ‘Look you’re causing these problems yourself. The world screws you over, but you’ve got to sort yourself out.’

The charities we met were all about giving homeless people another handout rather than giving them the one thing that they needed: opportunity. Opportunity to a homeless person is a job; in fact what keeps most of us from falling to pieces. Work gives you social association, friendships, a sense of responsibility, and the chance of making your own money so that you don’t have to ponce off the state and ponce off your parents.

The Underlying Philosophies of Mediation:
1 Ownership

2 Empowerment

3 Impartiality

4 No-blame approach

5 Confidentiality

6 Adult-Adult relationship with mediation client not Parent/ Child

Mediation, and effective conflict resolution in general, follows a similar expectation. I am not a mediator to solve someone’s dispute for them, my role is to help them to resolve it themselves. It is not my dispute. I go home at the end of the day, while the people I provide mediation for are left with their situation. It is their dispute, and it’s up to them to resolve it.

I share John Bird’s discomfort with sentimentalism as it gets in the way of challenging people to use their own capacities and ablities to resolve their life situations.

If someone doesn’t want mediation, I don’t spend much time trying to persuade them. It’s their dispute not mine and I know that they are actually quite capable of resolving the dispute themselves anyway. It may not be the right time for them to try to resolve it via mediation. They have the right to pass.

Because most mediators hold that view, it means their practice is always one of supporting more effective communication and creative thinking towards the resolution of conflict and not of taking over people’s problems for them and trying to 'fix' them. Sentimentalism is one of the root causes of Rescuing and one of the greatest obstacles to empowerment.

The process of empowerment...

The role of the mediator in supporting constructive resolution of conflict includes a commitment to the use of exploratory and creativity-generating questions. This is looked at in more detail in Questioning but essentially this means the use of genuinely ‘open’ questions to draw out of the parties involved their own thoughts and feelings about their situation and their own ideas for ways forward.

The input of advice and suggestions and opinions does the opposite and creates a dependence on someone 'out there' to solve the dispute for them. While these are often thought of as being 'helpful' they actually reduce the possibilities for empowerment.

'Leading questions' are also sometimes used as if these are somehow 'enabling' the person in dispute. When in fact they are just the same as advice, suggestions and opinions so are just as disempowering. Effective mediation training challenges participants to look at their own inclination to rescue and how this is manifested by the use of leading questions. Once acknowledged it is then possible to recognise and use genuinely open questions.

Effective conflict resolution supports a disputant's creative thinking towards resolution of the situation. It is never to lead them towards a solution. They are quite capable of finding that for themselves, and in fact are the only ones capable of doing so. Any other approach implies the Rescuer Syndrome has come on to the scene.

The role of conflict resolution practice is to walk alongside the party and support them on their journey, not to drag them along behind or push them in directions they may not want to go.

Maintaining this approach with someone in dispute or who has some other problem supports development of their capacity to resolve their situation.

It facilitates their empowerment.

The Guide to the Principles of Effective Communication and Conflict Resolution e-book, based on the thinking and practices described on this site is now available!
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This allows us to have an open acceptance of the disputant (colleague, friend, stranger, child, parent, sibling, etc. whoever that person may be) as just another human being, feeling like they are on a rocky path and wanting support.

We don't then have to see them as a 'failing' human being needing to be told what to do, as if they are a burden to be carried. This is not only more effective in supporting them in their difficulty, it releases those who wish to support others in dealing with their difficulties from the sense of despair and guilt that is so common amongst the helping professions and those who become 'involved' in helping others, whether at a personal level or a professional level.

If you are supporting someone through a destructive conflict, does it feel like a burden for you?

If it does you have started to want to rescue them and this website will help you in a way which reduces the burden for you, and through your supporting of their empowerment, the person will be able to find their own constructive responses to the conflict.

Why not Rescue them? And what do you do instead?

Instead of having to fend off suggestions and advice and judgements and opinions about them and their situation from 'Rescuers', the person experiencing difficulties is supported in focusing on their conflict, relationship breakdown or other difficulty:

*How do they feel about it?

*How does it affect them?

*How would they like it to change?

*How would they like to bring about that change?

*What do they need in order to achieve that?

For further discussion about this topic visit CAOTICA Blog by clicking on this banner. CAOTICA the CAOS Conflict Management Blog

An opportunity to reflect on the situation, to stand back from it and look in on it (all of which can be supported through effective listening and summarising) enables the disputant to untangle him/ herself from the complex web that surrounds the situation.

The opportunity to visualise steps towards ways of changing their situation through creative thinking, supported by appropriate questions allows them to see a different, more acceptable situation for them to step back into in real life.

Through this approach empowerment arises.

The acknowledgement afterwards that the new situation was created by them instills more confidence in being able to do so again in the future. Self-empowerment has occurred. They have created choices in how they respond rather than feel they have only one way of responding, or 'reacting'.

The approach above applies whether an individual is being supported in a 'one-to-one' or whether all those in dispute are being supported together, for example in a face-to-face meeting. The same practices and Principles apply throughout.


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Are you experiencing difficulties communicating with someone? Perhaps at work with your boss, or your colleagues, or at home with your partner, children or other family members? Is there an unresolved conflict that you are struggling with?

Guide to Effective Communication and Conflict Resolution

Buy The Guide to The Principles of Effective Communication and Conflict Resolution for just $7, and learn the insights gained from the practices of Mediation and Conflict Coaching that can help you communicate better and create new ways to resolve your conflict.

There's also a FREE COPY of the e-booklet Listening, Summarising and Questioning - The Simple, Effective Skills of Conflict Resolution with every purchase of The Guide.

Some recent feedback on The Guide:

Dear Alan - I recently purchased The Guide which I think is excellent and highly useful in a personal and professional context. I am a teacher with the Skills Institute in Tasmania and I'm about to roll out communication training in Tasmania's only youth detention facility. I have an enormous amount of material regarding communication but none as succinct or as user-friendly as what you have developed.

Clare Thompson
Teacher-Human Services Skills Institute - Tasmania


Alan,

I work at a homeless shelter/rehab and I teach a class on community living. This is a new field of employment for me. I can use this site for ideas for the class I teach.

This is going to be very interesting and educational for myself as well as others.

This site is a big help. Thank you!

TM, Kentucky, USA


Working with 'Bullying'? - This may interest you….

Hello Alan Sharland

Thank you SO MUCH for this article! It brings forward some very key points about the phenomenon of "bullying" which I have been pondering for some while. Among others, asking to what extent can/should the person on the receiving end of the bullying/perceived to be bullying take responsibility/initiate steps to shift the paradigm? How can this happen without implying that the recipient is somehow responsible for the bullying behavior?

Laurie McCann, Campus Ombuds, Univ Calif Santa Cruz


Hi Alan,

You have put together an awesome web site with lots of fantastic materials.

John Ford - Managing Editor Mediate.com



Hi Alan, ..... your site is great. I've been reading all the material and have to say its already made a difference in how I sort out/manage some of life's little problems. JH - West London, UK

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This article is the BEST article on questioning I have ever read and I'd like, with your permission, to pass it along to our mediators.Your examples of both genuinely open and 'not-so-open' with explanations are very insightful.

ML - Canadian Govt. Agency


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Hi Alan

I have just spent hours on your site as I truly love the eclectic mix of reference material that you kindly share. From Gibran to Byron Katie and the fab youtube clips! I am making my free hugs poster as of now :-)

Anni with joyful smile :-)
Preston, UK


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