In Cases of Miscommunication or Misunderstandings, Mediation May Be Appropriate

In Cases of Miscommunication or Misunderstandings, Mediation May Be Appropriate -- by Starhawk.

When Is Mediation Appropriate?

Mediation is appropriate in cases of miscommunication or misunderstandings, to clear up hurt feelings and hurtful interactions. Mediation implies that we can find a win-win solution, that no one is either completely right or completely wrong and that both parties can come to share a mutual purpose.

Mediation is not appropriate in cases where people are accused of real wrongdoing — physical violence, theft, sexual assault or harassment, child neglect or abuse or other crimes. When real harm has been done to one person by another, right and wrong may need to be ascertained.

Who Should Be in the Mediation?

When two people have a conflict, a mediation is best performed for the two of them alone. Even when one person has a conflict with several members of a group, it may be helpful to split the issue into a series of one-on-one mediations. Often, when key players resolve their differences, other people can shift in response.

However, when an issue involves a group, one-on-one mediation may not be effective or appropriate. If I resolve my issue with Max and then go back to my team who are still angry at him, they may talk me out of the resolution. They may feel left out or shut out of the process and undermine it.

In any case, limiting the mediation to the people directly involved, perhaps with a limited number of allies from both sides, can often help move the process along. A second phase may be needed to involve the rest of the group.

Tools for Mediation:

In Cases of Miscommunication or Misunderstandings, Mediation May Be Appropriate -- by Starhawk.

The Box

At the beginning of the mediation, talk about our natural human urges to win, to be right, to make the other person look bad. Ask people to take a moment to think honestly about what their own hidden agendas might be. Assure them that no one else need know what they are, and ask them to write them down. Give them no more than ten minutes to do so.

Bring out the box — any type of box big enough to hold the papers, as long as it has a lid that will close. Ask the parties involved if they are willing to place those hidden agendas in the box and suspend them for the time of the mediation. Have them fold them up and write their names on the outside, and assure them that when the mediation is over, they can take them back if they wish. Ask each person to physically place their paper in the box, close it and set it aside.

Active Listening

Active listening means listening with full attention, to both text and subtext. When we listen actively, we are focused on the other person, striving to understand rather than formulating our comeback.

One party begins, telling a bit of their story while the other party listens. The mediator should set a strict time limit — no more than five minutes — and assure the second party that they will get their turn.

When the time is up, the mediator asks party number two to paraphrase in their own words what they heard and the emotions they sensed.

Party number one is then asked whether the response seems accurate to them, is given a chance to correct it and is asked to confirm that they feel heard.

Then party number two is given the same amount of time to speak, and party number one reflects back, with two correcting and confirming that their side has been heard.

Each party will get multiple turns in the course of a mediation. The mediator directs the process and makes sure time is allocated fairly, intervening to stop any destructive attacks.

Telling the Other Story

Each party is given a set amount of time — generally, ten to fifteen minutes — to write out the story of what has gone wrong as they believe the other party would tell it.

At the end of the time, each party reads what they've written aloud, and the mediator employs active listening techniques for them to test the validity. Alternatively, they may exchange papers and read each other's versions.

Using this technique gives everyone the challenge of shifting perspective. It may also reveal where each side misconstrues the other's position or, at times, that each side understands the other better than they thought.

©2011 by Starhawk. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New Society Publishers.

This article was adapted with permission from the book:

The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups
by Starhawk.

The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups by Starhawk.Collaborative organizations have the unique potential to harness their members' ideals, passions, skills, and knowledge — if they can succeed in getting along together. The Empowerment Manual provides keys to: Understanding group dynamics; Facilitating communication and collective decision-making; Dealing effectively with difficult people. Drawing on four decades of experience, Starhawk shows how collaborative groups can generate the cooperation, efficacy, and commitment critical to success.

Click here for more info and/or to order this book.

About the Author

Starhawk, author of "The Empowerment Manual" (Starhawk photo by Bert Meijer)Starhawk, a highly influential voice for global justice and the environment, is deeply committed to bringing the creative power of spirituality to political activism. She is the author or co-author of twelve books and also teaches Earth Activist Trainings (, intensive seminars that combine permaculture design, political organizing, and earth-based spirituality. Her website is and she blogs at


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