Book Review: Narrative Mediation: A New Approach to Conflict Resolution


Narrative Mediation“Narrative mediation” focuses on perceptions of the parties as revealed by their stories.  If a party says, “My boss has always been out to get me!” then that is the party’s reality, regardless of any objective truth.  Such “totalizing descriptions” crowd out facts, and the mediator’s job is not to tell parties they are wrong, according to the authors of Narrative Mediation: A New Approach to Conflict Resolution.  Instead, mediators should help the parties develop a new story, a new narrative pathway out of the dispute.

Authors John Winslade and Gerald Monk contrast their approach with “mainstream” mediation theories, which include identifying the parties’ interests and helping the parties resolve conflicts in ways that maximize satisfaction of those interests.   Narrative mediation concentrates less on problem solving and more on developing relationships that are incompatible with conflict.  Narrative mediators help the parties change their relationship so that they can envision and articulate a better future in which resolving the dispute is but one element.

The authors outline and explain three phases of narrative mediation: (1) engagement (2) deconstructing the conflict-saturated story, and (3) construction of an alternative story.

First, mediators must listen to the stories of conflict.  We should build trust by conveying an understanding of the depth of the parties’ distress.  We should listen for the intersections between the parties’ narratives and identify past interactions that sheds some gray on the parties’ black and white views.

Next, the narrative mediator works to deconstruct or destabilize the “conflict-saturated” stories with “curious exploration” and “externalizing conversations.”

Curious exploration contrasts with telling people how things really are. Instead, narrative mediators subvert problem stories with inquiries, such as  “What do you mean by ‘trust?’”  “Have there been times when you DID work well together?”  By uncovering specific behaviors behind the labels, one can address behavior.  By recovering positive experience, the negative story loosens its grip, which creates space for alternative views.  Once the parties remember and acknowledge their good history, they can use it to move forward.  Deconstructing negative relationships and reconstructing a better relationship is the primary task of narrative mediation, “in preference to the pursuit of an agreed-upon solution.”  In practice, clam the authors, relationship building shortens the negotiations phase.

Narrative mediators employ a move called “externalizing the conversation.” The mediator speaks of the problem as if it were a third person acting upon both parties.  “How has this lack of trust impacted you?”  “Are you willing to let this conflict continue to worsen things until a judge decides, or are you interested in working on damage control sooner?”  Blaming the problem instead of the people creates a chance for the parties to work together against a common enemy.

After deconstructing the conflict story, the third step for narrative mediation is to construct an alternative narrative.  The authors discuss various scenarios and techniques, many of which are not unique.  The difference, in my opinion, seems to be the outlook of the parties if narrative mediation succeeds in transforming the relationships of the parties.  For example, instead of an employer grudgingly agreeing to pay a justly fired employee extortion money, the employer now sees that both sides were victims of a circumstance.  Instead of the fired employee being convinced of illegal intent by the boss, the employee now understands management’s true reasons for the termination.  Obviously, if both parties humanize and understand the other, they will sleep better, with or without a settlement.

So, is “narrative mediation” really so different from other approaches to mediation?  Yes and no.

In litigation, often a judge or retired judge serves as mediator.  Often judges and other mediators assume the role of evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of case and encouraging the parties to settle to avoid the risk of a worse outcome at trial.  Certainly, that evaluative approach differs drastically from “narrative mediation.”

However, I’m not so sure that narrative mediation differs all THAT much from the classic interest-based approach articulated by William Ury in his trilogy of books.  (Getting to Yes, Getting Past No and The Power of a Positive No).  Ury, too, instructs us to “separate the people from the problem.” (Getting to Yes, Chap. 2).  He wrote, “Before you can negotiate, you need to create a favorable climate.  You need to defuse the anger, fear, hostility and suspicion of the other side.”  (Getting Past No, p. 169).  Ury’s conclusion is entitled “Turning Adversaries into Partners,” in which he emphasized, “Your goal is not to win over them, but win them over.”  (Getting Past No, p. 160).

Also, does the concept of an “alternative narrative” differ that much from merely encouraging a party to envision a future with their conflict resolved?  Perhaps the authors describe a difference in depth if not a difference in concept.

Whether or not Narrative Mediation describes a new approach or just uses pedantic language to describe an existing approach, it was a useful (although difficult) read.  The authors emphasized that some parties enter negotiations constrained by their beliefs, which are real to them regardless of the evidence.  The authors provide tools to loosen the chains of hurt, distrust and other impediments of the “conflict-saturated” narrative.  They describe a method to facilitate a new way of thinking about the situation so that the parties can resolve their dispute and move forward.

I think the approach is most useful with parties in a relationship that will continue following settlement.  Also, I expect to use elements of the approach with unsophisticated parties who are wedded to their opinions and beliefs.  However, I think the approach has limited utility with frequent users of mediation, such as insurance adjusters.

Jeff Merrick, Merrick Mediation
Copyright, 2013