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Underlying Assumptions and Values

Every mediation practice is grounded in particular values, assumptions, and cultural patterns. This page lists some of those which characterize the mediation model presented in The Mediator's Handbook. We don't describe US mediation generally--in fact we encourage mediators and mediation organizations to brainstorm their own lists. My thanks to the many workshop participants who have contributed to this one.

Being aware of your customary values, practices, assumptions can help open up your options as a mediator or facilitator. It is also helps us notice how the ways we practice mediation gives some parties an advantage, others a disadvantage.

How conflict occurs, changes, resolves

  • Individuals directly involved "own" the conflict and are responsible for resolving it.
  • Disputes can be resolved through skilled intervention--for that matter the belief that disputes can/should be resolved at all.
  • Good communication will usually prevent or resolve conflict.
  • Conflict arises when people's interests aren't met. Therefore, if people can articulate their needs, the conflict is easier to resolve.
  • Dispute are resolved by moving from personal to problem-solving, from past to future orientation, from individual positions to group decision-making.
  • Generating an official agreement is an effective way to bring conflicts to a close.


  • Mediators restate parties' words, changing their language into ours.
  • Talk which explains, reveals, negotiates, makes explicit is encouraged.
  • Talk which is dramatic, expressive, narrative, suggestive is usually discouraged, especially when it takes a long time.
  • English is the default language for multi-lingual situations.
  • Parties are encouraged to talk about issues, discouraged from attacking, accusing, blaming, name-calling towards individuals.
  • Literacy is often expected, always valued.
  • The significant aspects of conflict can and should be verbalized.
  • People should contain their nonverbal language, stay in their chairs.
  • Interrupting is rude or counter-productive.
  • Face-to-face conversation is the way mature people handle conflict.
  • Mediation assumes each person has a right and an ability to decide what is best for him or herself.
  • Written and signed agreements are more powerful than spoken ones.


  • Daytime and evening hours (except labor negotiations!).
  • Duration: sessions generally last 30 minutes to 3 hours.
  • We turn the focus away from the past and towards the future.
  • Focus is on short term future, rather than on enduring relationships.
  • We prefer sequences--one person at a time, one topic at a time.
  • Disputes often presented as a series of events, culminating in the mediation session.
Does our choice of time and space serve mediator's comfort more than participants?
How would mediation work at 2AM in a lively bar?


  • We use tables, sit on chairs. Each person has a "place." The mood is more or less formal, depending on the type of furniture.
  • Mediations happen in private closed rooms, often bland, impersonal spaces--implies that disputes are private matters, need to be contained.
  • We prefer to meet on neutral turf that belongs to none of the parties--values equality -- that one party should not be given an advantage or acknowledgement of their greater power, and our belief that we can mitigate power relations.

Rational / Emotional

  • Some mediators say start with emotions-->deal with them and the problem is easy to solve.
  • Other mediators say focus on problem-solving by toning down the emotional "noise."
  • Mediators avoid debating facts, unless it is directly relevant to a solution or clearing a misunderstanding.
  • No formal process for bringing in or weighing evidence.
  • Agreement building phases favors a linear, rational style of one-issue-at-a-time, give and take negotiating.
  • Both rational, factual arguments and emotional appeals are acceptable strategies for the parties to use.
  • Usually the mediation begins with a recognition of people's emotional involvement, and assumes that they need to tell their stories.
  • Usually the mediation is over when problem-solving is over.


  • Mediators are skilled in use of formal English.
  • We are expected to be dispassionate, impartial, relatively neutral in body language, facial expressions.
  • We downplay their personal backgrounds or perspectives, especially in shorter mediations.
  • We make a point of not knowing the parties or having an interest in the dispute.
  • We don't expect subsequent involvement with parties other than about mediation-related issues.
  • Belief that mediators should be trained, certified.
  • Requirement (or habit) of detailed record-keeping.
  • Recognition of mediation's validity by (some) governments, courts, police, agencies.

"Good" human relations

  • Harmony is preferable to conflict.
  • We encourage people to talk rather than use violence.
  • Parties are usually prevented from making threats and verbal assaults.
  • We favor conversations where people take turns, are forthcoming, listen quietly, and talk about problems rather than blame, retribution, emotional accusations.
  • Good relations are built on mutual support and trade-offs, not through protecting or defining each party's rights.
  • The process and the agreement ask parties to begin to trust each other, to assume good rather than bad intent.
  • Less emphasis put on honesty--the process does not weigh the truth of what people say.
  • We prefer disputants who are fair, reasonable, flexible, considerate, self-aware towards the other party.
  • We tend to downplay issues of "honor", the virtues of unyielding insistence on principles, never compromising, defending one's rights, establishing Truth.
  • Good agreements make good neighbors.
  • We model respect for each party and expect disputants to behave "civilly" towards each other.
  • Each disputant is given a turn to speak; the mediator makes sure that everyone's voice is heard in the discussions and negotiations which follow.
  • Mediators consciously try to balance power (age, class, gender, race, education, religion) differences.
  • Conversely, we tend to downplay a disputant's superior status, experience, role.
  • The mediator usually does not prioritize one side's need over another's.
  • The agreement is only finalized if all disputants present agree to it individually.

Hierarchy/Authority (between mediators and parties)

  • Building the parties' relationship to each other is the focus; relationships with mediators are temporary--we don't expect people to agree in order to please or placate the mediators.
  • Our mediators prefer an informal, "friendly" approach that contradicts the parties' expectations of authority.
  • Mediators convene sessions, direct them.
  • Mediators set the emotional tone, as well as degree of formality.
  • Mediators explicitly state they have no authority to judge, to require a decision, or (usually) to enforce an agreement.
  • Mediation makes implicit promises--we have magic potent to fix your problem.

Ownership and responsibility

  • Mediation generally brings disputes back out of the public sphere and into a more private arena, especially if agreements and proceedings are confidential.
  • Individuals directly involved attend; those involved in the wider community--elders, lawyers, bosses, other members of the organization or neighborhood etc. are explicitly excluded.
  • Mediators explictly expect the parties to craft their own solutions (private) rather than have courts or mediators decide for them (public).
  • The possibility of (public) legal or disciplinary sanctions may give mediators greater authority.
  • We generally do not report what happened at a mediation to outside authorities.

Some mediation programs have experimented with this, and in many societies, groups meet to deal collectively with disputes at the local level. The more people involved, the more values, assumptions, and structure need to be explicitly discussed and agreed to.

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