Narrative Mediation

For the past 18 months or so, I have been studying and trying to implement in my mediation practice, techniques from a “discipline” called Narrative Mediation. Narrative Mediation is not new even though it is relatively new to me. John Winslade and Gerald Monk published “Narrative Mediation: A New Approach to Conflict Resolution” in 2000. Winslade and Monk’s work in turn grew out of narrative family therapy concepts in use in Australia since the mid-1980s.

At the risk of over-simplifying, the techniques championed by Winslade, Monk, and others are based upon the idea that people understand facts within the context of a story or narrative. In a conflict, the narratives lead to differing understandings of those “objective” facts. Those narratives are based upon one’s point of view such that the facts are rarely completely objective. In other words, we all see facts through an interpretive lens.  A person’s point of view is in turn dependent on one’s socio-cultural context.  Unpacking the competing, conflict-laced narratives is part of the mediator’s job — according to narrative doctrine it is the whole job.

Consider the following hypothetical: employee has a non-compete and/or a non-disclosure. He leaves his employer and goes to work for a competitor. Whether or not the employee technically complies with the non-compete, the employer sees the move as a betrayal and believes that the employee is using confidential information to compete. Couple this with a predictable defection of customers and the employer “knows” that the employee is violating their agreement.  The only “objective” facts in this narrative are that the employee resigned, is working for a competitor, and the employer has lost some business.

The employee, on the other hand, left the employer because he was passed over for promotion or was slighted in some other way and believes he should be free to work where he is respected. So, he goes to work for a competitor just outside the geographic or other limits of the non-compete or he gets a legal opinion that the non-compete is unenforceable.

Both narratives lead to “legitimate” and hardened positions. The narrative mediator’s job is to help both parties explore the underpinnings of these narratives and understand the other side’s narrative. Even this cursory overview of Narrative Mediation would be incomplete without a mention of the need for the mediator to examine the affect of his or her own socio-cultural context on the competing narratives. Good mediators are neutral in the ordinary sense but interpret facts through a narrative too.

Mediators certified for civil cases in North Carolina are trained in what narrative practitioners call problem-solving mediation based upon the tenets of Fisher & Ury’s “Getting to Yes.” As an adherent to the facilitative approach based upon Getting to Yes, I recoil at the “problem-solving” moniker. Nevertheless, there is a lot to learn from the narrative methodology.

So, what tools does narrative mediation offer for a case like our hypothetical?   Follow my blog, as I explore some of the narrative concepts that I have begun employing and discuss how these tools supplement and can improve mediation outcomes.

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