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The Underlying Philosophies of Mediation

6. Adult-Adult relationship not Parent-Child

An Adult-Adult relationship between a Mediator or other conflict resolution supporter and someone involved in a destructive conflict is essential if the conflict resolution is to be effective.

This applies to anyone involved in a dispute, whether as someone trying to help others resolve their dispute or if it is our own.

The Mediator is the facilitator of the resolution process and not a source of ‘expert advice’ or other input into the situation.

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

This distinction is obviously a metaphor – some parents relate to their children in a very Adult-Adult way. The main point is that in the relationship there is not a dependency by one person on another for their needs to be met.

All of us will move between these two types of relationship with various people we interact with in our lives but within mediation as a process it is an Underlying Philosophy that people are not relying on the Mediator to solve their problems for them. That is, the relationship is an equitable Adult-Adult one.

People in dispute are considered to be the experts in their situation and therefore will be the experts in knowing what means of resolving a situation will work for them.

Any practice that implies the mediator is the expert in solving their dispute for them changes their role to one of being the 'Parent' in a Parent-Child dynamic and is ultimately disempowering.

This is is reflected in the Underlying Philosophy of Ownership - that people are inherently capable of, and responsible for resolving their own disputes and life situations.

In many interactions between organisations and individuals however the nature of the relationship is more like Parent-Child, and as a result the destructive conflict situations will often become chronic and dependent.

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

I have experienced agency officers phoning up on behalf of people they have referred for mediation instead of expecting them to call us themselves.

The people they have referred are adults, what hinders them from calling us directly?

The ongoing rescuing ethos practiced by many agencies, induces a Parent-Child relationship.

Consider how much time is taken up by agencies doing this for adults across the country.

They don’t say – ‘Mrs Jones, I guess it would be preferable and more appropriate for you to call them yourself as you can then have a direct conversation with them about your situation.’

This would promote an Adult-Adult relationship between themselves and the disputant as well as promote an Adult-Adult relationship between the disputant and the Mediation service.

Perhaps their Managers would tell them off for not making a phone call for another adult? So is it the Managers in these agencies that perpetuate this?

Or is it the local Councillors or MP’s who contact the Managers who contact the Officers as a result of the complaint from the resident that the officer didn’t call the Mediation Service on their behalf for them to find out what’s going on in their case?

The point is, it isn't down to any one particular individual or role, it is a lack of awareness of the approach being one of Parent-child and so this permeates the policies, procedures and responses of the agency. Wherever the cycle starts, Rescuing is occurring, reflecting a Parent-Child dynamic in the relationship that exists between the client and the agencies and those that influence or monitor the agencies.

How much time and effort and energy has gone into that situation? This is because the values of our organisations rarely encourage or support or expect adults to act as adults but intrinsically operate as if the relationship is that of Parent-Child.

Some agency officers would say that some members of the public expect that of them or are not 'capable' of doing these things. Or their managers would expect it, or the local Councillors or MP’s would.

They are exhibiting Rescuer Syndrome if they do say this and their actions not only serve to inhibit the resolution of, or even escalate, many disputes but they also use up an enormous amount of time and resources. There is more about this phenomenon on the Communication and Conflict in the Helping Professions page.

An Adult-Adult relationship between someone in dispute and anyone who is trying to support them in resolving that dispute is essential if the support is to be effective. Whether that supporter is a mediator, or a friend, or colleague or family member, etc.

A Parent-Child approach to supporting the person in dispute will not only entrench them in their 'victimhood' but will also create a dependency relationship between the person and the supporter.

If you know of someone involved in a destructive conflict and you have become 'fed up' with trying to help them, the chances are that your approach has been more akin to a Parent-Child type of relationship in your support.

But that's fine, because it's ok to make mistakes.

Any mistake is an opportunity for learning.

Are you willing to reconsider your approach, to use effective questioning skills rather than keep trying to come up with a solution for the person. As if they are not able to find one for themselves?

All of the Principles of Effective Communication reflect an Adult-Adult approach to communication and support its application to Conflict Resolution.

And here's a great example of treating adults as adults and what happens when we expect and trust that people will behave in an insightful, intelligent way without the need to control their behaviour......

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Join our new 

ONLINE Introduction to Conflict Coaching Skills 

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Learn about the CAOS Model of Conflict Coaching, the first to be developed in the UK in 2008 and one that does not have to be connected to ongoing mediation but can be simply a 'stand alone' support service for individuals. 

Open to non-UK attendees - visit the link above for more details and to register your interest.

Train to be a Mediator in London UK with CAOS Conflict Management:

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? The following book can help you with that.......

A Guide to Effective Communication for Conflict Resolution

A Guide to Effective Communication for Conflict Resolution introduces the 9 Principles that are also described on this site to help the reader develop a 'mindfulness' in relation to their communication in a way that supports the resolution of conflict. In this book

Alan shares his observations and learnings from working as a Mediator and Conflict Coach with regard to the ways that people become stuck in unresolved conflict but also how they go on to create more effective ways forward in their difficult situations. 

"I think you put together so well all the essential components of
conflict transformation in a way which people can relate to and
understand. A brilliant book and I will recommend it to everyone." Jo Berry  www.buildingbridgesforpeace.org


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


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


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