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Mediation – What It Is and When to Use It

This module was created by Jarling Ho, Wendy Wood, and Ken Cloke. It will provide concepts and tools to enable users to: 

This module will address the following Core Competencies

  • Establish conditions for learning and transformation
  • Support skillful communication
  • Evaluate and improve relationships and systems

Conflict in and between social/political organizations and the spaces in which they do their work are inevitable. Sometimes efforts to solve problems and negotiate solutions do not result in resolution. At these junctures, it may be wise to bring in an external third party, skilled in supporting everyone to create a better outcome.

Mediation is an informal problem-solving conversation facilitated by an experienced third party who is outside the problem. It is a highly fluid and flexible process, but does have certain characteristics:

  • Voluntary (each person decides whether they want to participate)
  • Confidential
  • Facilitated by an impartial third party
  • Process is decided upon by participants
  • Outcomes and/or decisions are made by participations

It is a consensus-based approach that uses facilitated communication and heart-to-heart communications, (as well as a number of conflict management skills) and similar techniques to bring conflicting parties into constructive and creative dialogue. Mediation is future-oriented and less concerned with deciding who is right or wrong than with resolving disputes so they do not occur again.

Mediation, while often associated with litigation and arbitration, differs from these legalistic solutions in that the participants decide the issue themselves, with the support of an impartial mediator. The mediator invites the parties to participate in

  • Defining the issues
  • Identifying creative solutions
  • Collaboratively implementing solutions

Why Mediation Works

  • Stops people from fighting
  • Initiates deep listening and dialogue
  • Acknowledges and affirms negative emotions
  • Facilitates informal problem solving and collaborative negotiation
  • Settles issues in dispute
  • Resolves underlying issues that gave rise to the dispute
  • Promotes forgiveness, encourages reconciliation
  • Helps design preventative conflict resolution systems

But what exactly makes mediation successful?

  • Allows dialogue to take place in the language of metaphor and stories
  • Draws on compassion rather than hatred, distrust, or detached neutrality
  • Lays open the sources of the participants’ motivation and intentions
  • Empowers everyone equally and democratizes their conflict
  • Aids people in creating solutions for themselves and accepting them, rather than having them imposed from the outside
  • Encourages people to move beyond rigid positions and understand each other’s underlying interests
  • Makes the positive motivation of each person the center and object of the process, respects people and accepts them as they are, while simultaneously encouraging them to improve
  • Looks to the future rather than the past

When to Consider Mediation

Consider mediation at the early signs of disagreement/conflict when initial attempts to resolve it one-on-one have not worked.

Here is an examples of a scenario that can benefit from mediation:

Two community activists assigned to work in the same neighborhood disagree about how to interact with residents and aren’t working well together as a result of the disagreement. The entire group can sense the tension between the two. Each has worked with their organizers to try and work better together but it hasn’t changed the dynamic. Mediation in this instance would provide the space for the community organizers to have a much more constructive conversation and find creative ways to work past their differences.

Examples of when a leader is NOT the best person to help resolve a conflict

  • The team views the leader/organizer as being part of the problem.
    • If the leader/organizer is part of the problem, then they need to be involved in the conversation to create a solution.
  • The leader/organizer knows what the solution to the conflict should be.
    • This can disempower others who then are not on board with the solution. It silences the voices of those disputing.
  • The leader/organizer thinks they can solve the dispute.
    • Again, this mindset can disempower others.
  • The leader/organizer strongly agrees with one side of the dispute
    • This can disempower and suppress the concerns and needs of the team member who doesn’t share the same perspective.

Effective and wise leaders in social/political organizations know when they are not the best person to help resolve a conflict.
In these situations, once the determination is made to mediate a dispute, the next step is to find a mediator whose practice matches the organization’s needs. There are different approaches and styles of mediation which vary among mediators. Generally, mediators who use a facilitative or transformative approach and those who focus more on the relationship dynamics and communication are better suited for mediating disputes in social/political organizations.

Peer Mediation and Its Value in Organizations

While bringing professional mediators into the spaces of social/political organizations to address conflicts is important, there is also great value in building the capacity of the organization to mediate disputes within and between organizations and communities whenever possible. One option is to establish a peer mediation process  where the mediator is a peer of the parties involved in the dispute. Building conflict management and mediation skills and embedding a peer mediation process into the fabric of an organization offers many benefits, including:

  • Resolving minor disputes that could disrupt the work and success of programs/projects
  • Offering a more informal mediation process (typically, peer mediators are responsive and easily accessible)
  • Providing a strong sense of cooperation and connection with colleagues and community
  • Demonstrating improved self-esteem and improved positive status amongst peers
  • Developing communication and leadership skills that will serve them beyond the mediation program, into their families and communities

Peer mediators may have a deeper understanding of the organization’s or community’s cultural context. The peer shares the same mission, similar perspectives, and cultural language that a mediator outside the organization may not appreciate.

This is how a more formal program might look in an organization

  • A referral process for anyone to refer specific conflicts to mediation
  • Integration of program into current HR/disciplinary policies and/or inclusion in overall conflict resolution system
  • A cadre of peer mediators available to mediate
  • A case management process, which includes gathering important information, peer mediator selection, scheduling, and follow up as needed
  • Initial and ongoing training of peer mediators
  • Initial and ongoing recruitment of peer mediators
  • Outreach and education of program to organization

Note: For smaller organizations, a less formal program would likely be sufficient.

Mediation Competencies, Standards, Ethics, and Certification

For social/political organizations, it is helpful to be aware of the training, standards, and certifications for mediators. Such training and standards are just some of several factors organizations can use to screen for mediators who can provide a quality process that respects the culture of the organization and focuses on the people.

These standards of conduct, competency, ethics, and also certification are not governed by a single entity (i.e. a licensing board or bar). Instead, many jurisdictions follow standards they have developed or adopted from national associations or model standards

The following criteria are considered what is necessary to become a mediator:

  • Basic mediation training (typically 30 - 40 hours)
  • Minimum number of mediation observations
  • Minimum number of co-mediated cases
  • Completion of a certain number of cases or a minimum number of hours mediating

Similarly, while different locales abide by their own standards of conduct, they generally follow the same guidelines, promoting self-determination, competence, and impartiality and laying out parameters on conflicts of interest.  Beyond basic competency, mediators can undergo certification to show they have achieved a certain skill level to mediate. There are general certifications as well as for specific areas of practice (such as family disputes) and approaches (such as transformative mediation). There is no single specific widely-accepted certification for the field, and because certifications vary in their requirements, knowing a mediator is certified is helpful but not crucial in determining the right mediator for a social/political organization.

For more information about ethical standards in mediation, these resources are the the Association for Conflict Resolution:


Changing society towards an envisioned ideal inevitably leads to disputes. Mediators, either external or internal to the organization, can bring constructive and positive outcomes to these internal conflicts, when initial attempts at resolving such differences do not help. Peer mediation programs can be an effective part of a social/political organization’s overall conflict management system. Whether external or internal, mediators ensure a quality process through their trainings, standards of conduct, and ethical guidelines, and also through certification.

Next Steps

Reflection Questions for Organizations Considering Mediation

Examine these questions within the context of your own work or a contemporary global issue that relates to your work in social change.

  • Has your social/political organization considered bringing in a third party to mediate disputes? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • Is there a strategy and process your organization can implement to determine when/if a third party mediator would be helpful?
  • Do you have access to professional mediation services in your area? If so, do those mediators have any experience working with social/political organizations?
  • Would implementing a peer mediation program within your organization be helpful?