Our Communities

Everyone aspires to live in a safe community. Every parent wants to know their children are safe. Sadly today, in the US, when it comes to schools there are many parents, children, and community members who feel increasingly anxious and unsafe. We (and likely many from other parts of the world) have been grief stricken over the latest school murders in Florida.  I wish I could write that we have been shocked but unfortunately these horrific events have become such a regular fact of our national life that the shock element is missing. Instead we experience disbelief (not again!), deep grief, despair (will this ever end?) fear and insecurity (how do we stop this? Why do we allow this to continue?) anger (why are our national leaders not doing something about this?).

The students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida are providing national leadership.  Their determination, courage, and intelligence are inspirational. As a country we have let them down, we have let all our children down. We can take responsibility for our failure by acknowledging it and by showing we will do everything we can to support them, and all the students around the country, as they push for change.

Our students are demanding a national reflection on basic values and responsibility. They recognize the desperate need to clarify and agree what needs to change around gun rights. The tragic element in all of this is that these deaths were not inevitable – we have brought this on ourselves, somehow willing to sacrifice our children rather than challenging the thinking, the fears and anxieties, and motivations underpinning the status quo.  The overwhelming evidence is that access to lethal weapons is the main reason these mass murders continue unabated. For example, after a mass shooting in the UK in 1987 in which 16 people were killed, the UK Parliament banned the ownership of semi-automatic fire arms and following a 1996 massacre in a Dunblane Primary School it outlawed the possession of handguns.  There has not been one school shooting in the UK since the passing of these laws. This evidence needs to be publicized and reinforced so the national debate on gun rights is based on solid fact and not wishful thinking. The students know this and are doing so.

The Board of Education in my community recently met (as they have all around the nation) to address school and community security and to give members of the public a chance to voice their concerns and their views.

I was impressed that our School Superintendent stressed the importance of getting to the cause and not just dealing with the symptoms of these tragic events. I was also heartened by his focus on building strong relationships as a key component to ensuring safety and security within the school community.

As a practitioner of restorative approaches, I have witnessed first-hand the positive results when schools adopt this approach. Building strong relationships by taking responsibility, expressing emotions in a safe environment, and putting things right is at the heart of a restorative approach. This has high potential to de-escalate painful and potentially dangerous emotions like anger, hurt, and revenge. Taking responsibility for one’s actions and considering how these have affected others is fundamental, as is exploring what can be done to make amends. This increases trust and instils mutual respect, which in turn builds a strong sense of community. The potential for learning, about oneself and about others is significant. Research data and anecdotal evidence concludes that strong and inclusive communities are overwhelmingly safer and their members happier. In these kinds of communities trust is high and people feel respected and are treated fairly and with care. Schools that adopt a restorative disciplinary approach in dealing with everyday wrongdoing or conflicts report a significant drop in suspensions and exclusions. These components are the foundation of safe and flourishing communities where violence is not used to settle grievances.

The basic message is: you are part of our community, we want you here, but your actions are not acceptable. What can you do to modify your behaviour and how can we, your community, support you?

Practical security measures are important to consider but these won’t provide the critical elements of communal respect and trust that is the basis of real security. Resource Officers can play a vital role in building close relationships with students and help keep a pulse on interpersonal and intergroup school dynamics.

As communities across the nation grieve at these recurring tragedies and determine how to support the student leadership’s quest for change, it is my sincere hope that the national response from educators will be to strengthen relationships and build inclusive and restorative communities where all the members are committed to supporting each other and keeping each other safe.








Thoughts on Empathy

Reading the article, ‘In an age where the heart rules the head, here’s a case against empathy’, what Ms. Hinsliff characterizes as ‘empathy’ is actually ‘sympathy’. When we sympathize, we identify with the feelings of another because we have experienced similar feelings. It is easy to sympathize. She describes empathy as ‘gooey emoting’. It is the farthest thing from that. Empathy is a sophisticated emotional process requiring one to put oneself into another person’s shoes and sometimes very uncomfortable shoes at that. It requires effort and emotional intelligence engaging both the cognitive and emotional centers of the brain. It is closer to what psychologist Paul Bloom describes as ‘social intelligence’ or ‘rational compassion’ where one ‘attempts to understand (what) other people feel… even when the feeling is completely alien to you’. Empathy requires much more effort than sympathy because it requires we leave the comfort zone of our feelings and perspectives to understand (not necessarily agree with) those of others.

This is what is missing from our public discourse today – we are talking to ourselves (and others like us). We often don’t do make the effort to empathize or understand those whose experiences and feelings are very different from ours. As Hinsliff says, ‘feelings are fickle’. That is why we need to think and analyze our feelings if we want to better understand ourselves and others. Perhaps if we did this more often we could begin to bridge some of the social and political rifts that continue to divide us.


Gaby Hinsliff, the Guardian UK, 18 February 2017

Paul Bloom:  Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion



Holding up the Mirror

The Role of Emotion in Achieving Success in Mediation


I have grappled with many things in my years of mediation practice, but the question of success is one that is ever present for me as a practitioner and a trainer of mediators. What is success in mediation? What is the interplay between success and resolution?  What maximizes the likelihood of achieving success?

Role of Emotion

In this article I will be looking at the role of emotion in conflict and how it is used, or not, in helping to reach resolution.   Workplace, community, and family mediation are my point of reference because of the interpersonal relationships at the center of these disputes. However, even in commercial disputes where resolution revolves in large part around financial agreements, emotions are present and will influence the quality and nature of negotiations.


In Western style mediation (with its focus on identifying and meeting individual interests and needs in a verbal exchange), resolution and success are intimately linked. This would be fine except for the narrowness with which resolution is usually defined, with the resulting limitations this imposes on the process, and I would argue, with the chances of mediation being successful in the long term.

The problem as I see it is twofold.  Firstly, mediation and resolution, one a process, the other an outcome, have become almost synonymous.  Secondly and more importantly, resolution is more often than not narrowly defined as an agreement on practical issues with sometimes, if you’re lucky, an acknowledgment of an improvement in relationship. The difficult emotions, perceptions and assumptions associated with the conflict are not explored. This leads to a resolution that is half-hearted at best and unsustainable in the long term.

The reason resolution, and by extension, success is defined so narrowly, likely has to do in part with the history of mediation and how it evolved out of the legal field. That we are part of a “time is money”, “fix- it”, “leave emotions at the door” culture is part of it too. It is fueled (with no ill will intended) by those who commission mediation because have identified a problem and want it resolved as quickly and economically as possible. Parties too, when they think of mediation think of “resolution” i.e. agreement, because mediation as it is understood presently, is pretty much synonymous with these concepts.  On the other hand, in a strange twist, potential parties sometimes struggle to consider mediation because the idea of resolving anything with the other person is so inconceivable (or perhaps threatening) that they reject it out of hand.

What concerns me about this narrow definition of resolution, and by implication of success, is its diminished potential to address the deep-seated interpersonal issues and opportunities for understanding and repairing relationships and the expansion of options that this makes possible.


A broad definition of mediation itself is helpful particularly because of its close relation to resolution.

Mediation: a process whereby parties achieve a clearer and deeper understanding of the situation, themselves, and the other and which consequently clarifies and reveals a wider range of options and choices. These choices will form the foundation for concrete agreement(s).

Resolution: an outcome where parties, empowered by their new understanding of themselves, the other, and the situation, achieve a heightened awareness of their strengths and internal resources from which they can make decisions.

This definition of resolution is one I’m comfortable with for measuring what constitutes a successful outcome.  If the parties are willing to engage at this level an agreement on the practical issues will follow.  The work of the mediator is in getting the parties to this point.

Holding up the mirror – the emotional landscape

 In most conflicts, whether in the workplace, family, or community, the parties are often deeply entrenched in their views and have suffered considerable turmoil and emotional and physical distress.

As mediators we are constantly making choices about where and what to focus our attention on.  We need to understand some of the facts and the context of the situation; the emotional effect it’s had on the parties; to identify and explore unmet interests and needs; to identify (and challenge) perceptions and assumptions; and finally, perhaps, understand hopes and dreams for the future.

As you have probably gleaned by now, I emphasize the resolution of issues less and less, particularly in the first stages of mediation. Or, to put it another way, I use the issues to explore what is getting in the way of resolution. I encourage parties to share the web of emotions, perceptions, understandings, and assumptions that have built up as the conflict has unfolded. Through this process walls begin to crumble, and people begin to see their image reflected in the other. As one party expressed with wonderment and some disbelief to the other after a heartfelt exchange “we are like a mirror of each other”.

Choosing to go to these difficult places has become a deliberate choice in my practice. By helping the parties access the intangible, more nebulous and messy area of emotions, and encouraging them to explore their own projections and shadows, a deeper more authentic dialogue can take place.

Surfacing difficult emotions (hatred, fear, confusion, disdain, sadness, despair) present in these complex cases and exploring the deeply held perceptions and assumptions that each have of the other creates a space where mutual recognition and understanding are possible. This has a diffusing effect and releases new, and positive energy. This energy can then be used for identifying options and problem-solving the practical and relational issues. My experience is that once the misunderstandings and assumptions are cleared up the practical issues are resolved relatively quickly. The hardest part of my work is done.

In choosing to focus on the emotional aspects of a conflict I am regularly asked by new mediators about the boundary between mediation and counseling or therapy. My answer is clear: mediation is not therapy or counseling; one does not “dig” into a person’s history in order to understand deep seated motivation or find triggers for behavior or emotional states, nor does one create dependence on the mediator for emotional well-being. However, when strong emotion is present in mediation and relates to the conflict at hand, it presents an invaluable opportunity for furthering the primary propose of the mediation, namely achieving clarity and understanding of the impact of the conflict on a person’s life and what can be done to change things for the better.



Going to these difficult emotional places can be scary both for the mediator and the parties.  It requires courage, faith in the process, and a willingness to take risks.  The mediator needs the parties’ implicit and sometimes explicit permission to go to these places. Mediators must tread carefully and allow the parties to guide us.

Patience and persistence

Patience and persistence are required to support the parties through this emotional process. Perceptions and assumptions are not easily abandoned; it is not easy to acknowledge that one’s version of the conflict story is partial at best and perhaps downright faulty.  Even more difficult is coming to terms with one’s own contribution in creating and keeping the conflict alive.

Perspective taking

Because mediators are seeing and engaging with the conflict from the ‘outside’, we are able to enlarge the lens through which the parties see the conflict. This external perspective lets in much that was hidden and allows for a third understanding (or story) to be created by the parties together. They can then begin to let go of blaming each other and focus instead on understanding how the situation developed, choices that were made (or not), and how each contributed to the resulting escalation and polarization.

Building Trust

Obviously for the parties to feel safe enough to engage at this level trust in the mediator and the mediation process is essential. By meeting the parties where they are, building empathy and not rushing the process, a foundation of trust is built whereby parties are willing to explore the messy landscape of negative emotions, assumptions and unexpressed or unidentified needs.

Transformation or Problem Solving?

This approach can be described as “transformative”, where empowerment and recognition between the parties are given priority. In contrast, “problem solving” focuses on identifying issues, building an agenda and generating options etc.  Although I hold transformation as a high value I do not think it is helpful to categorize oneself too narrowly, as a narrowly defined approach cannot possibly do justice to a complex process.  Applying a range of approaches, depending on the context and needs of the parties, will enhance the chances of success.

The narrative, “Jane, can you tell us what has happened over the past few months and how you see the situation”; the facilitative, “Jane, how do you respond to what you’ve just heard?” and the transformational, “Jane, what have you learned from this last exchange?” all have a place in the process.

The narrative focus asks the parties to share their “story” about the conflict, how they see it, experience it, and explain it.  The mediator listens for opportunities for potential transformative dialogue where hidden, or not so hidden, assumptions and misconceptions of the other can be explored.  Embedded within both approaches is the facilitative where the mediator uses enhanced listening skills to encourage dialogue and a full exploration of the issues and the impact of the conflict on both parties.  This approach guides the parties to a clear and deeper recognition of each other (transformation). As the parties begin to see each other differently and create a different story/rationale of the conflict, a positive energy is released that empowers the parties to problem solve with creativity and enthusiasm.

Training Implications

In many mediation training models (even those purporting to take a ‘transformational’ approach) new mediators are more often than not encouraged to take a problem-solving approach with lip service paid to encouraging recognition and empowerment.  This approach is driven by the unspoken goal of fulfilling the new mediator’s need to feel “successful” in what is a complex and challenging craft and, because from a training perspective, a problem-solving approach is easier to teach!

Over the years I have accepted the complex, unpredictable and layered nature of mediation.  When teaching new mediators, I prepare them for the interpersonal juggling act they are about to embark on by asking them to loosen their need for control, neatness and certainty, and to embrace a commitment to being in the moment.  They will need to develop their comfort level with emotion and particularly with difficult emotions.  By staying “with” the parties and trusting their skills and the process, they will find a way through.  Indeed, they will guide the parties through to a resolution that will be truer and more likely to last.

Related Readings

Cloke, K. Resolving Personal and Organizational Conflict: Stories of Transformation and Forgiveness – Jossey-Bass 2000

Folger, J and Bush, R. The Promise of Mediation: Responding to Conflict Through Empowerment and Recognition – Jossey-Bass 1995

Goleman, D. Emotional Intelligence – Bloomsbury Publishing 1996

A version of this article was published by Mediate.com in 2014


I’ve been thinking a lot these days and months about transitions. Big and small.

This is because I’ve just made a big one – moving back to NY state after 17 years overseas, 15 of those in the UK. There have been other big ones in my adult life, certainly the move from NY to Europe in 2001 counts as a big one, perhaps rivalling this recent one in some regards.

Thinking about transitions as I’m adjusting to my new life in NY has been interesting. Acknowledging the bigness of this move helped me to cope with the inevitable stress as I prepared. Saying goodbye to friends and colleagues and leaving a country that had been very good to me, where my work had flourished and where I had started my first business, Beyond Conflict Ltd., was emotionally and practically challenging. The energy expended and organizational focus of packing and shipping personal effects across the ocean felt unrelenting at times.  And I was sad in realizing the European continent was no longer going to be a ferry boat ride away.

Transitions are scary. With all the planning in the world one is entering the unknown. We all differ in our capacity to deal with risk and uncertainty – sometimes I think I’m adventurous – at other times I’m risk adverse and my vulnerability in the face of the unknown paralyzes me.  Over the months leading up to the move I often felt I was reaching forward and simultaneously pulling back.

There are forced transitions and transitions of choice as this one was. I often think of refugees forced to leave their home and country, often a choice but a desperate one, one that severely limits personal choice.  As difficult as this move was, I was always aware of the privilege of being able to make a choice and not have it forced on me. Not to mention not having to worry about violence and economic survival.

Our days are full of transitions most of them so small we’re barely aware of them. Transition from sleeping to waking, from the comforts of home to getting ready for the outside world. Transition from an evening or weekend with friends or family to saying goodbye. Leaving the active awake world for sleeping and dreaming – most of us know how hard it is sometimes to go to bed. That is most obvious with young children, so reluctant to leave the exciting world of light, conversation and play for a much-needed good night sleep.  One thing that stayed with me as an early childhood teacher decades ago was how transitions during the school day were especially challenging for young children (transitioning from playtime to circle time to snack time for example). Teachers were trained to be on alert for signs of resistance or conflict at transitions times. I’ve become aware of my susceptibility to low level anxiety in anticipation of certain minor transitions. That awareness has helped me handle the transition more smoothly simply by recognizing my internal state.

So, this big transition is done. I’m settled in NY state, albeit just. Reconnecting with old friends and colleagues, meeting new ones, closing the UK business, Beyond Conflict Ltd., and setting up a new one, Restorative Intent.  I’m exploring mediation and restorative practices in the Capital district, finding my way around, new trails to hike on, performance centers to fulfil my need for art, dance and theatre. It’s all happening and it’s good.  Challenging in lots of ways, exciting and fulfilling in others. I’m glad to be here. And I wonder whether this is the last big one or are there others to follow…? Only time will tell.  For the moment I’m glad to be here.