Why it's a bad idea for mediators to give advice

(originally published at dialogicmediation.com)

Distinguished educator and mediator, Tammy Lenski, is celebrating the tenth anniversary of her blog, Conflict Zen.  As part of that celebration, she wants to highlight some of her favourite posts and articles over the years.  One that caught my eye is entitled, Giving advice is a problem-solving crutch.

In it, she recalls a basic mediation workshop that she co-led at the time that had one rule for its participants: no advice giving.  The rule is especially difficult for those participants who have been trained to provide advice to their clients, such as lawyers, social workers, and others.

Tammy then sets out a number of reasons why she refrains from giving advice to mediation parties after they've told their respective stories:

  • It would be arrogant of me to assume I understand the complexities of their lives and minds sufficiently well to know that my advice is what’s best for them. They know themselves far better than I ever will.
  • I could easily insult my clients. If it were such an easy or obvious solution that a mediator (or co-worker or boss) can see it, they probably wouldn’t be stuck in the conflict. Complex problems usually call for less obvious solutions.
  • When I’m mediating (or when you’re supervising), I have power I can misuse, even inadvertently. It’s too easy for a participant to assume my expertise is best and to give up control to my ideas. People may say “yes” without fully considering the implications ‘til later. Or they may well know the implications, say yes anyway, and then the advice is ignored or avoided.
  • Most of us, including me, tend to follow through better on ideas that are our own. Whether you call it buy-in or ownership, the chances of an agreement lasting are greater when a solution isn’t imposed.
  • When I give advice, I risk becoming too enamored of my own creativity and brilliance. When I do that, I’ve started to make the mediation a platform for my own power and knowledge instead of a place for folks to tap into their own.

Many of these points resonate with the transformative mediator's approach of following the parties, rather than leading them, in the conversation they actually wish to have with each other.  We believe that a process that is driven from the bottom-up, with interventions by a skilled practitioner, is much more likely to have a positive impact on the quality of the parties' conflict interaction than a process that is driven from the top-down by the mediator.

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