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Mediation and ADR, Research

Mediation at its core: Insight into a qualitative research study on the lived experiences of parties to mediation

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By Timea Tallodi

In this post, Timea Tallodi explains how she applied interpretative phenomenological analysis when researching the perceptions and experiences of individual parties in mediation. She considers what the findings suggest about mediation’s potential in conflicts arising in administrative justice.

In recent decades numerous books and articles have been published on mediation. Most of these explore the process from a theoretical perspective, often investigating mediators’ view on the process, or use surveys and/or formal interviews with large samples of disputants.

Being tied by such approaches and research designs, the questions investigated tend to be limited to quantifiable and/or theoretical outputs – for example, disputants’ satisfaction rates or choices amongst dispute resolution mechanisms and the potential benefits of mediation over litigation. However, due to the shortage of in-depth scholarly exploration of mediation parties’ experiences of mediation, we know very little from disputants first-hand what it is like for the them to go through the mediation process. This is a striking knowledge gap that is vital to all areas of dispute resolution including administrative justice. This gap inspired me to embark on a qualitative research study, at the University of Hull (a joint project of the Law School and the Department of Psychology), currently being continued at the University of Essex School of Law, that set out to explore mediation parties’ lived experiences of mediation.

Questions that guided this research were: What is it like to experience conflict? What is the meaning of mediation for the parties? How do the parties interpret their own, the other party’s and the mediator’s actions and words during the process? How do the parties make sense of the changes taking place in their relationship before, during and after mediation?

My aim was to bring us closer to understanding the core value of mediation, its applicability and potential drawbacks as understood by disputants. This understanding can be applied in a variety of areas, for example housing, education, employment or family cases.

Methodology: Getting to the core of participants’ experience

The study used phenomenological interviews with parties to mediation that ended with a settlement. As the interviewer I aimed to present myself as a listener and prompted participants to engage in a detailed exploration of their account of their conflict and the attempts at resolution in mediation. Open-ended questions dominated the interviews, for example: How would you describe your relationship with the other party before mediation? What was it like for you to go through mediation? What did it feel like whilst you were in that room?

Interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) was used to inform the data analysis. IPA is one of the best-known qualitative approaches in psychological research that is widely used, particularly in health psychology, for the exploration of individuals’ experiences of pain, but it has been more increasingly applied in other settings such as HR and management research. The aim of IPA is to give voice to the concerns of the participants. It reifies the individual’s lived experience via exploring the particulars of the participant’s experience, how they make sense of their experience and their meaning-making processes.

Common overarching themes: The experience of conflict and the meaning of mediation

Five cases were subject to nuanced analysis. Whilst the analysis focused on the particular for each participant, common elements were also drawn out in the second phase of the data analysis. This summary will highlight some of the identified shared characteristics. For the details of the analysis and the data set, please consult the articles listed below.

As a main common theme across cases the analysis highlighted that participants’ primary experience of conflict manifested in feelings of stress. Participants explicitly stated this (e.g., ‘inside I’m extremely stressed’) or indirectly voiced their fear, anger or frustration (e.g., ‘you’ve constantly got to come to work with the sickening feeling’). Perceptions of stress ranged from feeling ‘uncomfortable’ or falling ill and being off sick.

By linking psychological models of stress with mediation dynamics, the analysis explored mediation’s dynamics from a novel angle. It identified participants’ perceptions that mediation is capable of reducing feelings of stress through addressing underlying factors in conflict that are building blocks in psychological models of stress, e.g. perceptions of injustice or lack of support. Communication, reappraisal and problem-solving were identified as main tools that allowed for mediation to interfere in the stress process.

As a further common theme, the analysis describes that the primary meaning of mediation for participants was ‘learning’ comprising insight and reappraisal. Participants reported that they gained insight in three dimensions: in relation to the self, the other party and the situation.

Mediation activated the learning process which continued after settlement, in the course of which participants gained both negative and positive insights. Negative insight, though painful, was also highly beneficial as it induced the participant’s altered thinking about the situation which led to positive changes in their behaviour and feelings. In particular, it tended to motive the participant to ‘get real’ and ‘move on’ with their lives. Insight in relation to one’s own contribution to conflict escalation helped participants towards reconciliation.

Transformative insights took place in the form of a spiral in which one party’s disclosure triggered that of the other. The information provided was often perceived as leaving the other party vulnerable. The spiral of disclosure was accompanied by heightened emotional arousal that occasionally led to a sudden shift in behaviour, attesting to reappraisal taking place.

Participants, through insight and reappraisal, confronted and broke through conflict leading to isolation that they made meaning of in a variety of ways (e.g., describing a ‘barrier’ or ‘cold war’). Reappraisal led participants to engage in heightened consideration for the other but also for the self. For example, their ‘focus’ changed because mediation gave them a ‘lesson’. One participant also reported a deep inner transformation as mediation’s value to her. As she articulates, mediation has made her become ‘a better person’: ‘it made me realise where I go wrong and what I can do’.

Participants attributed primary significance to the mediator demonstrating understanding and caring behaviour and reported that the mediator very actively worked on bringing their standpoint closer in order to facilitate learning. Participants described mediation as a difficult experience (e.g., ‘nerve-wracking’) and greatly appreciated relying on the mediator’s support.

The mediator’s approach that facilitated learning was grasped by participants as providing safe space, encouragement and drawing out positive content from the hostile conversation.

Further main themes were also drawn out relating to the significance that participants attribute to various phases of mediation and mediation’s impact on parties’ relationships.

This research was the first that used IPA to offer a rigorously elaborated insight into the lived experience of parties to mediation in order to refine, clarify and deepen the findings of previous research.

Some recommendations from the perspective of administrative justice

Participants’ perception of conflict as a highly stressful experience and mediation’s stress-alleviating potential support the importance of early dispute resolution (EDR). This aspect highlights that disputants in various fields would strongly benefit from EDR via mediation. This is particularly true for individuals that are more vulnerable to stress, including cases in the areas of special education needs (SEN), housing and vulnerable social groups, healthcare, Court of Protection.

Learning including gaining constructive insights and reappraisal as that primary meaning of mediation for disputants implies mediation’s strong potential to allow for in-depth reconciliation or the reinstatement of relationships. This finding makes mediation an attractive dispute resolution method in cases where parties have an ongoing relationship. This angle of the process supports the choice of mediation for cases in the area of administrative justice where perceived injustice is a core element of the conflict and the restoration of trust between the sides is beneficial not only for the parties but for the wider public.

You can read more about this research in the following articles:

Tallodi, T. (2016). Building Bridges through Learning as Mediation Parties’ Lived Experiences: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. Mediation: Theory and Practice. 1 (2), pp. 155-179.

Tallodi, T. (2015). Mediation’s Potential to Reduce Occupational Stress: A New Perspective. Conflict Resolution Quarterly. 32 (4), pp. 361–388. 

About the author:

Dr Timea Tallodi is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Essex School of Law. She completed mediation training programmes and gained practical experience in mediation in the USA and Hungary. She holds a doctoral degree in mediation (PhD in Law and Psychology) from the University of Hull, UK, a master’s degree in social psychology from Vrije Universteit Amsterdam, and a law (JD) degree from ELTE, Budapest.

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