Stop Shovelling Smoke! Give users a classic definition of mediation

The first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature was Edith Wharton in 1921, for her novel An Age of Innocence. Addressing what is, and is not, classic, Wharton wrote: A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions… It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.

Mediation needs a classic definition of itself. One does not exist. It also needs to be universal. In a field widely populated by lawyers, professionals who the great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. noted spend a great deal of time shovelling smoke, we have literally hundreds of different published definitions of mediation. It’s brain-curdling.

Edith Wharton’s delicate yet powerful quality of eternal and irrepressible freshness is notably absent. No definition inspires those who know little or nothing about mediation. Most convey the sense that mediation is about dispute resolution. None is really short. A classic definition needs to be an assault of thought on the unthinking.

Does a classic definition matter? Yes! More than that, it is vital to the growth of the field and its positive perception by those that consume its services. Everyone knows what dentistry is, or architecture, accountancy, law and medicine. Popular familiarity renders these professions above the need of definition. Not so with mediation, at best an emerging (but not yet emerged) profession, one most people have yet to encounter.

Every mediation institution has its own definition. Most are 20 to 60 words strung in segmented, sometimes complex, sentences. Many – though not all – service providers tend to see the world more through their own private lenses than from the vantage point of their customers. They wind up describing what they do, rather than properly defining mediation itself. Consequently, they unwittingly limit what mediation is, or could be, by virtue of the narrow zone within which they operate.

For example, most definitions suggest mediation is a dispute resolution process, which implies that using a mediator to help negotiate, say, a pre-nuptial agreement or any other kind of contract, is somehow not “mediation”. The word “trust” is notably absent – despite educators falling over backwards emphasising its importance to mediation. There is no consistency. It all underscores the fragmentation of the mediation field that holds back its progression into an independent global profession.

As this balkanised field tiptoes toward a set of international professional norms, voluntary standards and a consistent code of ethics, surely mediation’s leaders can at least agree a classic, universal definition of mediation, for the benefit of the users out there. That straightforward task cannot elude the field’s extraordinary talents. Can it?

Richard Buckminster Fuller is remembered for two things: patenting the geodesic dome, and his advice to the world at large – Dare to be naïve. Let’s accept his challenge: to be naïve enough to offer a seven-word definition of mediation based on four key words – Negotiation, Facilitation, Trust and Neutrality – aimed at achieving a classic definition of mediation that can work for everyone, everywhere – and especially for the demand side – the users, the parties and their advisers. If widely adopted, if everyone started using it, the world’s leading dictionaries could be informed. If this happened, the impression created in the minds of potential users of mediation services would be electric. Here, for the first time, and not soon enough, would be something the entire mediation field could buy into, setting aside market-driven one-upmanship and presenting a single professional identity to the world, something that can really inspire users. As Alexander Pope put it: There is a certain majesty in simplicity which is far above the quaintness of wit.

A possible classic definition is: Negotiation facilitated by a trusted neutral person.

Negotiation (Latin negotiatus, past participle of negotiari to carry on business, from negotium business)is a series of communications involving personalities, behavior, positions, assumptions, obfuscation, indecisions, tactics, half-truths, lies, misunderstandings, blame, history, exaggerations, counter-claims, threats, hidden agendas, confusion between wants and needs, distractions, cultural differences and other interferences. The involvement of a suitable, competent neutral can help the parties “feel” their way through this quagmire to a higher quality outcome than is otherwise likely.  The dynamic of a neutral presence can influence the dialog in ways t