I finished this week John Winslade and Gerald Monk’s Narrative Mediation: A New Approach to Conflict Resolution. This book is grounded in social constructionist theory and postmodern philosophical assumptions. I’ll share a few thoughts on what was helpful and where I found some problems.
The approach is fundamentally influenced by the assumptions that behavior and meaning are shaped by discourse and socially constructed narratives. Conflict is not something that is intrinsic or caused by who someone is per se but driven by discourse and the socially shaped meanings as they act and are acted upon.
A big part of the approach is “externalizing the conflict,” which basically can be summarized as avoiding judgment and making the conflict itself “the bad guy.” The goal is to eliminate all guilt and shame so a positive alternative story can be discovered and developed.
Some strengths of this approach – one is that it can help in scenarios where people feel significantly attacked or threatened as a mediator seeks to restore a sense of safety and trust. There are some great components of the approach with different types of questions that can approach a conflict a bit more indirectly or in ways that allow really defensive people to find their way back. Another strength is there are some great methodological categories for finding your way through a conflict towards an alternative story. There are some things I really found interesting and helpful from a tactical and strategic standpoint.
But it was fascinating to read a book in which there was 250 pages of mediation yet there was not even a whisper or allusion to the concepts of forgiveness, confession, apologies, repentance, or reconciliation. This isn’t a surprise given the underlying philosophical assumptions, but that’s the giant and glaring weakness to this approach. It does not get at the heart. This approach more guides people how to manage conflict and get out of it and move on with your lives and hopefully with a chance at restoring the relationship. However, there is no attention to heart issues and the kind of sin and character elements that drive and perpetuate conflict.
That being said, I found a lot of the tools in the book helpful from a tactical or strategic standpoint in different potential situations, but I just don’t share the fundamental assumptions of the authors and some of their broad philosophical commitments to their process. But the idea of helping people develop a better story together that is characterized by peace is great. Worldview is a big piece here and this is why having a metanarrative to me is the most important component for a narrative approach to mediation – because it points to the grand story and that includes themes that ultimately lead to better stories like forgiveness, sacrifice, and love. To try to form better stories without connection to that bigger story leaves conflict resolution and mediation with limited possibilities where some of the deepest forms of transformation are neglected.
But – I think there is a lot tactically here that could be of help mediating in multi-ethnic situations or in indirect cultures because the strategies and tools are designed to save face for everybody at all times. That’s part of the problem, but there are areas of training embedded in this that would help someone doing this outside the West.