By McClellan, Jeffrey L.
Dispute Resolution Journal , Vol. 62, No. 4
This article discusses positive psychology and the benefits of combining some of its techniques with traditional mediation. It places specific emphasis on using the "appreciative inquiry" approach and solution-focused counseling. It also suggests how mediators could employ these techniques.
Positive analyses of mediation have been found in numerous studies of divorce mediation, community mediation, school mediation, parent-child mediation and organizational/labor mediation.1 In a recent survey, even corporate counsel have said that mediation is their favorite process.2
Researchers of mediation in the criminal context have found that mediation has performed extremely well on a number of satisfaction scales, some of which are: whether the system was fair, whether the case was handled satisfactorily, whether the parties had an opportunity to tell their story, whether the parties' opinions were adequately considered, whether the judge or mediator was fair, whether the offender was held accountable, whether an apology or offering of forgiveness was given, whether the outcome was fair, and whether the outcome was considered to be satisfactory.
According to Barton Poulson, who reviewed the available empirical research on victim-offender mediation, victims said mediation "outperformed" courts on every issue except consideration of opinion, while offenders said mediation outperformed courts on all issues except satisfaction with the outcome. In no case did courts perform better than mediation.3
The successes of mediation are closely tied to the strength of the traditional mediation process, which invites the parties to "separate the people from the problem," encourages them to work "side by side, attacking the problem, not each other," and focuses not on positional bargaining, but on satisfying "underlying interests."4
The Traditional Mediation Model
The traditional mediation process involves a number of steps. How many depends on the model of mediation used by the mediator. However, in all mediations you generally will find these steps. First, the mediator begins with an introductory statement. Typically, this covers the purpose of mediation, the role of the mediator, communication ground rules, confidentiality matters, and the agenda for the session.5 Importantly, the opening statement emphasizes the voluntary nature of mediation and the parties' consent to continue with the mediation process.
The second step in the mediation process has the parties telling their individual stories in their own words about the dispute.6 This negative story telling has been considered a vital part of the success of mediation because the parties are able to vent their feelings and explain to each other how they view the facts and circumstances of the dispute. This type of direct, and sometimes emotional, party-to-party communication simply does not occur in court proceedings, which are orchestrated by attorneys in a question-andanswer format.
The third step in mediation has the parties identify the key issues in dispute and the underlying interests of the parties. The mediation then moves into a problem-solving stage that involves an exploration of options.7
The last step involves preparing a settlement agreement.
It can be seen from this outline of mediation that early on the process focuses on negative storytelling and then moves into traditional problem solving. I believe that there is great potential to improve this process by taking advantage of certain elements of positive psychology.
The Positive Psychology Movement
The positive psychology movement began as a result of the belief among some psychologists that the field of psychology had "created a deficit bias."8 They argued that psychology's emphasis on human deficiencies and pathologies merely guided practitioners to bring people to what might be considered a state of normal health. But it did not help people to transcend normalcy. …