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Narrative Mediation – Theory, Process and Techniques

Narrative Mediation – Theory, Process and Techniques

Conflict, can be described as a mismatch of expectations between what you thought should happen and what in turn actually happens. The Narrative Mediator helps parties in conflict identify and surface those unsaid expectations to improve understanding, increase mutual respect and dilute the conflict- saturated stories that dominate the narratives of parties in conflict. In this interview with Gerald Monk, one of the pioneers of  Narrative Mediation, we explore the origins of Narrative mediation, learn about the distinct approach of the Narrative Mediator and how their mediation techniques and tools that help parties to create a new, richer narrative that helps establish shared understandings and build the beginnings of trust and respect.

Some of the advanced mediation techniques Gerald talks about include deconstructive listening - this is when the mediator explores the the effects of culture on people's understanding of what's going on in the conflict. Double listening is another technique of the Narrative Mediator where the mediator is listening for what has not yet been said or what might be implied.

Narrative mediation is used quite widely in Scandinavia and Denmark in particular. New Zealand and Australia has a long association with narrative practices and in Canada it is used in medical mediation and for workplace conflict. In addition there is a lot of work being carried out in the area of restorative justice and restorative practice that draws upon the approach, skills and techniques of narrative mediation.

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Full Transcript

Aled Davies: Hi everyone. My name is Aled Davies, founder of, home of the passionate mediator. This is where we interview the very best mediators and thought leaders from right around the world. This is the place where you can develop your thinking, sharpen your skills, learn about the theories and different approaches to mediation, and learn about new opportunities in the field.

Now, I’d say the vast majority of mediators are familiar with the ways of the traditional problem-solving approach to mediation, but there are other approaches equally, if not more, effective. In this interview, I want to learn more about the narrative mediation approach. Who better to teach me than one of the pioneers of narrative mediation?

My guest today is a professor in the Department of Counseling and School Psychology at San Diego State University and teaches in the Marriage and Family Therapy Programme. He’s a practicing marriage and family therapist in California, and a mediator and trainer in collaborative divorce practices and mediation in healthcare.

He’s worked as a psychologist and counsellor educator in New Zealand for 15 years prior to moving to the U.S. in 2000, and has a strong interest in promoting constructionist theories in counselling and family systems work.

He’s well known for his contributions in developing and expanding the applications of narrative therapy in New Zealand and in North America. His main professional commitment lies in the development and application of narrative mediation.

He’s involved in a range of professional domains utilising conflict resolution and mediation approaches, specifically as a consultant to a large healthcare system, a collaborative divorce specialist with Collaborative Family Law Group in San Diego.

He teaches a range of conflict resolution and counselling courses at San Diego State University. He conducts overseas study abroad classes for the International Security and Conflict Resolution programme for San Diego State University.

It’s a real privilege to welcome Dr. Gerald Monk onto Mediator Academy. Gerald, welcome.

Gerald Monk:Thank you so much for the great welcome.

Aled: My pleasure, and thanks for doing this interview. All right. I want to jump straight into this, Gerald. If the problem-solving approach to mediation describes the process as a way for two parties in conflict, or two parties in dispute, do a deal or reach a settlement that maximises win-win outcomes and efficient settlement, that’s how a problem solving, facilitative mediator might describe it. How would a narrative mediator, or a mediator using the narrative approach, describe mediation?

Gerald: I think narrative mediators are interested in exactly the same thing as other mediators. You’re put in positions where people are wanting help. They’re wanting to resolve and address the problems that they’re not being able to resolve themselves. I think what is unique that stands out regarding the narrative approach is our keen interest in the relational domain in conflict.

If we can work in improving the relational status of the parties in conflict, we can progress in increasing respect, some mutual, shared understandings, we feel the chances are much greater of being able to shift the conflict and make some kind of progress. It may not always be that you get agreement.

Oftentimes, mediators are put in situations where they feel forced to really push parties to come together and sign on the dotted line. We know that when we’re in positions like that, it often ends up being paradoxical. Parties dig their heels in or they sort of cave in and sign, but then quite quickly afterwards, things unravel. So we’re very interested in the relation space.

Aled: Okay, so the process is very much part of the outcome.

Gerald: The process is key, yes. It also raises issues about the kinds of mediations we can do. We tend to do a lot of work in systems, communities, organisations where there is ongoing relationships. Healthcare, where there’s ongoing relationships with patients, families, and their healthcare providers; families, family businesses, educational settings, where people are having to work together over significant periods of times rather than a one-off, 60 minute or a three hour event. These parties will never meet together or have anything to do with one another again.

Narrative mediators tend to be in areas where there’s some kind of ongoing set of issues that have to continue to be addressed.

Aled: Got you. I feel incredibly lucky to be interviewing you today. On any day, in fact. I’ll tell you why. Again, I had the privilege of interviewing Joseph Folger on transformative mediation, and just trying to understand where his inspiration, ideas, and thinking came from. I want to ask you a similar kind of question. But I thought if you could tell me the story of narrative mediation, tell me your story of narrative mediation. Where did it all begin? Where does it come from? How have you developed this?

Gerald: Absolutely. A lot of the work that my colleague John Winslade and I have done over the last couple of decades really builds on a lot of the work done by the developers and leaders of narrative therapy. Some of the central figures of narrative therapy are Michael White from Australia and David Epston. Their magnificent work in working in the mental health area, we’ve drawn heavily on their particular frameworks and then adapted them for a mediation context.

I’d be very happy to talk with you about the sub-genealogy of those ideas, but I think first and foremost, really need to acknowledge the incredible contributions of these figures that developed the narrative metaphor in the mental health field.

Aled: Yeah, okay. Tell me a little bit about the genealogy of it.

Gerald: Yes. There are some key figures that were shaping of that practice. We have figures like Gregory Bateson, a famous anthropologist and psychologist, and his work on the news of difference specifically, and I can talk a little about that. Jerome Bruner, a very famous cognitive psychologist, who drew heavily on the narrative metaphor. Edward Bruner, ethnographer from the United States who is very interested in the centrality of the story and community.

Then we also have figures like Michel Foucault, the well-known French philosopher-historian who was very interested in the effects of discourse and deconstruction, the wider socio-cultural frameworks that influence society and influence human behaviour.

What we’ve got is, sort of trying to then simplify it a little bit, in three tracks. One is the socio-cultural context out of which conflict arises in society and community, which is Michel Foucault’s contributions.

The way human beings organise their lives and understandings of themselves through the use of the story. Mediators all know about how parties want to tell a story. The story that they tell mediators is a conflict-saturated story that links together a whole series of events that fit a conflict description.

Jerome Bruner and colleague Edward Bruner were very interested in how human beings link events together in particular ways. We have this capacity to, very quickly, make meaning of any human event by linking particular, discrete plot events and combining them, to be able to then tell a story. This capacity of human beings to make meaning through the story is a very central element of narrative work.

Of course, the people that we meet, as mediators, are the ones that have got very rigid, fixed, uncompliant descriptions about the truth of what happened. Of course, the truth about what happened has various different takes on it because as you meet with the other party, the other participants, you know that their truth doesn’t line up with the people they’re in conflict with.

It’s the story that’s so central to this. Jerome Bruner and Edward Bruner’s work on meaning making and the story are central.

I mentioned the figure of Gregory Bateson. Gregory Bateson contributed a lot. In particular, we’re interested in Gregory Bateson’s construction of news of difference and this idea that we always make meaning of something by contrasting it with something else. For example, when we’re young children and we’re learning colours. If you’re learning what the colour black is, you have to understand the colour of black by contrasting it with white. Anything that we start to learn, we’re always contrasting it with something else to make meaning.

How does this thing come back to mediation? People who are embedded in a conflict have become so preoccupied with their own meaning-making system about what happens, they’ve lost, often, the focus of what is happening to themselves in the process of the conflict. They’re so focused on the other.

They’re so focused on wanting the other to fit and comply with what they’re wanting to address the problem, but they don’t realise what the cost is of not progressing in the stuck situation.

News of difference is we’re interested in looking at trends. ‘What has this conflict done to you over this period of time?’ People may have been in conflict for years, or days, or weeks, but conflict takes a toll. The concept of news of difference is really confronting people with the news of difference of being stuck in the conflict and the cost of it, in comparison to progressing and making shifts and movements out of it, to be able to create some kind of relief.

You may have been presenting some new work on motivational interviewing. Motivational interviewing draws very heavily on the idea of having people start to see clearly: what are the costs of continuing on, in the direction they are?

We link back to this early, it’s sort of a 1960s idea of escalating the effects on the parties, so they see more clearly the cost of them. Then learn, and then be motivated to want to make some moves in addressing the situation in ways that they weren’t prepared to because, they were so stuck in focusing on the other’s badness, or the disturbing things that the other person has done.

Aled: Okay. You talked about this conflict-saturated narrative.

Gerald: Yes.

Aled: Just that metaphor, you can just see this, almost trying to wring out the story. It’s saturated in conflict – very vivid. They talked about them selecting some kind of discrete elements that fit in with their own . . . or being really selective in which bits of the story that they’ve latched onto and then reinforcing that, which keeps them entrenched in their position. Is that . . . ?

Gerald: Yes, exactly.

Aled: What leads them to do that? Why do they invest in their story in that way?

Gerald: We come back to some of the philosophical underpinnings of narrative mediation. We come back to Michel Foucault, who focuses very keenly on the social location of problems. I think the best way of explaining this is just to use simple examples of everyday life. Especially those of us who have travelled a little, you get to see this more keenly.

For example, one of the stories we tell in our recent book, ‘When Stories Clash’, I went through an experience at St. Thomas as a passenger going through immigration control in the United States Homeland Security. We all know, those of us that travel a lot, what we’re supposed to do when we go through the immigration control. We have to line up. We have to take our belts off in the United States, our shoes off. We have to put our computers away. We have to do all of these various different things.

I know what I’m supposed to do. I know what my requirements are as a passenger moving through immigration control. In this one instance in St. Thomas that stood out as a way of explaining the notion of the conflict story is, I was behind a gentleman who probably hadn’t travelled before. He wasn’t sure of what he was supposed to do. As a result, the line behind him grew in this very lengthy way. The level of tension and distress, you could feel it growing. The people behind me were going, ‘Why are we standing here? What is going on?’

Seeing the dilemma of the gentleman in front and seeing that there was no one else in front of me, I’m wanting to help assist the immigration control because I understood that the main thing they want is to keep people moving. Let’s keep moving. I’m going to keep moving. I moved my things in front of the gentleman who was still trying to figure out what he was supposed to do and let my things go through the X-ray machine.

Then when I stood back, the immigration control officer watched this whole event. They immediately were very, very upset. They pointed to me and said, ‘Stand over there.’ I was quite shocked by this. Paradoxically the person was standing under a sign that said, ‘You have every right to be treated respectfully by the immigration control.’ The security person was furious.

I’m standing there so confused and then getting angry because I’m just trying to help move along. Slowly, the gentleman got his material through. Then we went ahead through the X-ray himself. Then I followed. I’m now really angry. What happened?

I went through the line and I just couldn’t help myself. That same security officer now was positioned on the other side of the X-ray machine. I went to them, trying to manage my distress, and I said, ‘Why were you so upset at me for helping to try and keep the line going and putting my things through the machine?’ She said, ‘Sir, in St. Thomas, we are very much about showing respect. It is very rude to jump the line. I was wanting to make sure that we all treat one another with respect here.’

It was such a great example of an event that I felt an injustice was done. I was now developing this elaborate, conflict-saturated story about this officer and their personality, their mental health status, these nasty things about the United States, and all of these things, and was feeling in a position of me knowing the truth about what had just happened.

Her reality was so completely different. She was looking at me as this disrespectful, discourteous, impatient, rude passenger who was defying the social fabric of St. Thomas and their immigration officials’ lifestyle.

I thought that, in a nutshell, is how we understand conflict and why we get to produce these conflict-saturated narratives. They come out of the social space. They come out of the culture. The narrative mediator is focusing on the social location of problems rather than individual personality and character flaws.

Aled: The social location of problems. The problem solving approach talks about separating – William Ury and Roger Fisher talk about separating the people from the problem. In the same kind of way, the problem isn’t located in the person. It’s in the. . .

Gerald: Yes.

Aled: Okay.

Gerald: There’s a mantra that Michael White used to utter. The problem is not the problem . . . Sorry, it’s the reverse. ‘The person is not the problem. The problem is the problem.’ The narrative mediator is interested in, what are the background social forces at work that are generating these very powerful, truth-based notions about what the nature of problems are. To make it more simple, I think of it as simply, expectations.

I think that all conflict, that I can think of, comes down to a mismatch of expectations about what you thought should happen. For example, I do quite a lot of travelling. I had just come back from Taiwan. In Taiwan, people have mucous in their chests. There’s quite a lot of pollution and they spit, and they spit in the public space. It’s very common. No one turns around to look at them or glare at them for being uncouth.

I spend a lot of time in New Zealand. There are signs everywhere saying, ‘Do not spit.’ We have quite a large Asian community. There’s an expectation in New Zealand, this kind of British culture of social conduct, and spitting is something that is seen as uncouth. Where it’s seen as a rather healthy behaviour of getting out mucous from your lungs because of the various different pollutive elements.

When you’re standing in line, in some cultures, like the one I just said, what’s courteous and appropriate is you line up, whereas in other cultures you all kind of gather and manoeuvre in a group to get to where you want to go to.

We have expectations about one another’s behaviour, how we should be behave. When people don’t conform to our own expectations, we then start to generate these problem-saturated stories about the other.

Aled: As you’re talking now, I just think of an example this morning getting on the Tube, the Underground in London. The norm is you wait for people to disembark before you get on. As the train pulls in, everyone that’s queuing up on the platform adjacent to door moves to the side, the people come off, but then there’s always somebody that tries to get on. You can see in everyone’s faces, when people don’t do what you’re expecting them to do.

Gerald: We’re talking about small incidents, although sometimes there’s a lot at stake. In the United States, if you use your horn on the freeway and you use it in any aggressive fashion, you can very rapidly escalate a dynamic with some serious road-rage that can lead to, if people are carrying a gun, people are shot because some kind of meaning is made of a particular behaviour.

In India, it’s appropriate that you honk on your horn all day long, alerting people that you’re about to take over.

These are rather simple events, but just think about all of the conflicts that happen in families, that happen between partners, about ideas about what you should or shouldn’t do, or parents and their children.

It all comes down to what I expected you to do, what you should have done, what’s right because we have these ideas about what kind of performances human beings should make.

Aled: I get the sense there’s a real, rigorous body of theory underpinning the narrative approach. How far has it been developed, Gerald?

Gerald: Narrative mediation features in some prominent places around the globe and it is not evident in other places. In Scandinavia, narrative mediation is used quite widely, Denmark in particular. New Zealand and Australia, which has had a long association with narrative practice, it’s quite a common, well-used modality there. In Canada, it’s used in healthcare, used in organisational conflict, used in education.

Also, there’s a lot of work now being done in restorative justice and restorative practice, which draws heavily on narrative metaphor of work. It’s not widely used in the United States, where I live. I’ve missed out South America, Brazil, and Mexico – areas there where people have keenly used the work of Michel Foucault and so on. They have drawn on that approach.

Aled: Okay. I read somewhere that narrative mediation is both an approach and a methodology. I want to find out a bit more about the methodology. I’ve got to choose my words now. Is it the process? I understand a little bit about the methodology. What does the process look like?

Gerald: For example, I do quite a lot of work in the healthcare context. One of the things that my colleague and dear friend John Winslade and I, in the early 2000s when we started presenting on this work in the United States, we talked about the importance of separate party meetings.

We ended up in quite a lot of conflict with our colleagues, who said, ‘You should never, ever start a mediation in meeting with parties separately. You should always start with parties together so the mediator is meeting everyone for the first time. It’s showing an even-handed, neutral approach. There’s no suspicion about what other events have occurred prior to that.’

We really did stand apart back then about saying we, in most instances, will meet with parties separately before bringing parties in conflict together at the table. In the healthcare environment where patients and families have a conflict with a healthcare provider, some bad medical events have occurred. There’s a sense that the healthcare professional has behaved not only disrespectfully but has engaged in some bad medicine.

Bringing a healthcare provider and the patient family together at the same time as the first meeting that they have to talk, we find is a very inappropriate thing to do because we don’t know whether mediation is going to be the right thing for the family.

Are they going to be approaching the healthcare provider really understanding that they’re open to listening to what the healthcare provider has got to say? Or, are they going to use the environment to just kind of attack the healthcare provider because they feel so angry? But they’re not actually interested in resolving a problem.

We need to decide in the mediation, there are people saying, ‘Yes, we want to resolve this.’ Are people, from that side, ready to meet? On the other side, does the healthcare provider have some understanding, some willingness to respect the patient and the family’s experience? Are they willing to listen to their concerns? Are they willing to not only, focus on the clinical area, but be interested in the relational arena? Is this healthcare provider the right person to show up, or will their presence escalate?

Then, in the family work, when we’re working with couples, is the couple that are separating, has one party been a victim of a lot of domestic violence? Is it safe to bring one party together with someone who perpetrated violence against them?

So narrative mediation starts off with parties separately and building a relationship with the parties separately, building strong alliances with them, understanding the nature of the problem-saturated stories that the parties are going to bring.

Also, using that environment, drawing on some of that theory I was telling you about before, of listening for the effects of the problem-saturated story on them. What is this problem-saturated story doing to you? What are the effects of it? How is it affecting your wellbeing? How is it affecting your life, your relationships, your financial circumstances? We want to know what the toll is on you because that is also an important part of the picture.

Parties often get in touch with realising the consequences of the conflict, and often it loosens them up for being more willing to make moves that they weren’t prepared to make because they realise, and of course they know, what the suffering is. They can tell you that, but they often don’t realise just at the level the suffering is.

We’re interested in news of difference, mapping the effects of the conflict on their lives in the separate meetings. This is why the separate meetings are important. And then also, listening for events – what are the events that are going on in people’s lives, in relation to the party they are in conflict with, that are not fully captured by the problem-saturated story?

For example, when you talk to people and say, ‘Is there anything redeeming about the people that you’re in conflict with? Is there any aspect about your history where anything was going okay? In your conversations, in your meetings, was there any moment where there was some sign of understanding that they had about your perspective?’

We might say, ‘Given all of the things that you’ve said about how terrible the people have treated you and about how bad this conflict is, what do you think about the idea of your willingness to even meet with them?’

We’re very interested in the motivations to meet. How you prepare to sit in the same room with these people? Do you think that there’s some remote possibility that they might be able to listen and understand some aspect of what’s occurred that they don’t right now? So we use what we call ‘smalling language’ to find small entry points that we can build on that is not defined by the problem-saturated story.

We find these out in the separate meetings. That’s when we start teasing these out and they become new knowledge, new spaces, new opportunities, new possibilities to be able to weave these in, when we start working through the issues in the joint session.

We’ll end the separate meetings by saying, ‘Are there any things that you’ve shared in this meeting that you don’t want brought forth in the joint session?’ Typically people are going to say, ‘No, I don’t mind. I’m quite happy for you to share what we’ve talked about, because I think you’ve really understood, Mediator, my concerns and my issues.’ The centrality of separate meetings and narrative mediation I think probably stands apart from some other practices.

Aled: Got you. Okay.

You talked about understanding this conflict-saturated story. Would you use that language or would you…?

Gerald: No. In a separate meeting, what we would start with is, ‘What is your hope and goal about what may come from this mediation process that you’re about to go through? If you were to think about an ideal ending to this, being realistic about the circumstances that you’re facing, what would that look like? What would your part be in helping get to this position?’ Or, ‘What would the other party be doing that would help realise some of these hopes?’

We start with the end in mind. We might spend quite a bit of time, ‘Tell us more about your goal and what your hopes are. Tell us why this is something that you really think could happen here.’ That actually, is a great place to start drawing out what we would technically call the alternative story, the non-conflict story, the non-problem-saturated story, the preferred narrative, the narrative that leads to some sense of mutual understanding, or some sense of mutual respect.

So we start with the goal and the hopes, and then we say, ‘Tell me what happened. Tell me the story. When did this first start? What was happening before it started?’ Because we’re in a separate meeting, we’re not taxing the other party as they’re sitting there waiting for us to explore all of this. We are fully present and paying complete and utter attention to them.

We are building a strong alliance with these people, so that when we go into the joint session, we’re in a strong position to be able to bring in elements of the conflict story that we think might be very helpful to be told: to direct people away from telling areas that are obviously redundant or that they’ve talked about many times before and it just makes people tired.

Then we ask permission to go to the areas that are new, that haven’t been spoken about before. We do it in very lay way without the jargon. Of course, you know people love to tell the story of what happened.

Aled: It’s interesting how you describe how you might, as the mediator, bring elements of what you discussed in your separate session into the joint session.

Gerald: I’ll give you a startling example. A number of years ago, I was working at this research institution – funny story. This is in New Zealand. It was at the time when they were cloning sheep. If anyone has ever gone to New Zealand, they know that we have something like 60 million sheep. These two scientists were engaging this really cutting age research on cloning. They had just won this massive grant to work on this really important agenda in our primary industry in New Zealand.

They had worked together for about 10 years before, but things had got to a point that they couldn’t stand one another. They were so tired of the conflicts that they’d had over the years, but both had knowledge that the other needed to conduct the research and be able to progress. They could barely stand to be in the same room.

We met. I think I had three meetings with each of the parties prior to the joint session. What I discovered as we were talking about the problem-saturated story and them talking about the effects of the problem-saturated story, one of them said as an aside, ‘Since this conflict really got going, I haven’t had sex with my wife in a whole year and our relationship is at an all-time low.’

This research team, they used to socialise. They had gone to barbeques together. They had a history, but they could barely talk now. The other talked about going home and not being able to sleep. They both talked about horrendous personal consequences of this.

In the joint session, I said, ‘You know, you talked about something very personal to me. You did say it was okay to share some things, but you said something very private to me about what was happening with your wife. I’m wondering if you’re open to sharing that, because it really seemed to capture the devastating impact this conflict has had on your life.’ He said, ‘I don’t mind at all. Mary and I’s relationship is unravelling because of this conflict that you and I are having. We haven’t had sex in a whole year.’

Then there was this silence. Then the fellow, we’ll call him ‘Frank’ said, ‘I can’t really believe what you’re telling me. I thought you just didn’t care at all about this whole thing. You come to work. You don’t look at me. You don’t talk. You seem like you’re just totally comfortable with what’s going on. I didn’t have any idea. Do you know that I haven’t been sleeping?’ Blah, blah, blah.

Because these scientists had this history, we brought in some elements that you wouldn’t think of bringing in, talking with a couple of scientists about a conflict, but it was mapping the effects of this problem-saturated story, that ended up that they started to come back as human beings. As people that were living their lives and really troubled by what was going on and wanted something better.

It’s not recommended to talk about people’s sexual lives when you’re having a mediation, but it just is illustrative of the problem-saturated story and the mapping work that I think sometimes leads to new breakthroughs and also builds motivation to get out of the stuck, problem-saturated narrative.

Aled: It’s a brilliant story. It really does illustrate well. You talk about creating an alternative story and moving on from the conflict-saturated story. Moments like that seem to me, are enablers for those conversations to grow into different stories, I suppose.

Gerald: Yes. I know our time is coming up to an end soon, but I do want to tell you that it’s very easy to say all of these things. It’s very easy to say, ‘Yes, people come with problem-saturated stories. It creates a very rigid, very inflexible dynamic.’ Yes, we all know that. It’s all very well and easy to say that what you’re interested in doing, as a narrative mediator, is to be able to look at plot elements. Events that are not captured by the problem-saturated narrative, bring those forward, link those together and to help generate and create a new narrative . . . A narrative that can build some kind of shared understanding, or to start moving towards respect, start to build the beginnings of trust.

All very easy to say that, but this is really difficult to do. This is really hard. When people are really stuck, they’re not looking for anything else. They’re not seeing anything else. They don’t know anything else exists, other than this person is this despicable being and that they have done all these terrible things.

What we’ve done, and it draws heavily on the therapeutic work in narrative, is develop a set of techniques. One is, I’ve been speaking about is narrative mapping, drawing on Gregory Bateson’s work. The other is deconstructive listening, looking at the background social forces, the cultural mappings, the effects of culture on people’s understanding about what’s going on.

Aled: Deconstructive listening, when you’re intervening in that way, you’re doing it with a view to understanding the social constructs and the norms?

Gerald: A simple example: early in our marriage, my wife and I conflicted about people coming to stay in our home. I come from New Zealand. I have family there. In New Zealand, when we travel to the other side of the world, we stay with relatives maybe for a month, maybe for six weeks. It takes a long time to get there. It costs a lot of money. My wife was so shocked early on in our marriage to think that I would have family members and friends staying in our home for one month, or even longer. She couldn’t her head around that. Excuse me one moment.

Aled: That’s all right.

[inaudible 0:45:33 – 0:45:45]

Gerald: Sorry about that.

Aled: That’s all right.

Gerald: She couldn’t get how I would want to do that, how intrusive and disrespectful and rude that would be, to have a visitor or a family member stay that long. I said, ‘How long does your family stay with you when they visit?’

‘A maximum of four days. We couldn’t stand it any longer than that.’

Initially it was like, ‘That feels very hurtful that you wouldn’t want my family to visit with me. They’re coming a long way. That’s not very kind and thoughtful. That we would welcome my family that they would be very comfortable here for a period of time.’ She said, ‘It’s so thoughtless of you and selfish that you would have family members imposing on our lives for that kind of period. That’s so rude and thoughtless.’

As we started to deconstruct, that really wasn’t about either of us being selfish or some kind of characterological [sounds like 00:46:54] problem about one another. It’s really about the cultural meanings that we made about why we felt so fiercely passionate about this and why this conflict went on for some time.

So deconstructive listening is looking at, ‘How did you come to that idea that you care so strongly about that and you think of me in this way?’ That would be an example of deconstruction, simply.

Aled: Brilliant.

Gerald: The third technique I wanted to mention is this technique we call ‘double listening’. All mediators know about active listening and reflecting back what people are saying. You paraphrase, you summarise, you identify theorems, and these kind of things. We’re interested not only in all of that, but we’re interested in double listening. We’re always listening for the not-yet-said or what is implied.

When you say, ‘It’s not fair. It’s unjust,’

‘Tell us about fairness. Tell us about justice.’

‘They were really rude.’

‘What is not rude like? Tell us about what you would prefer, that’s not what that is.’ We’re always looking and listening for the contrasting reflections.

Aled: So these are the opposites you talked about earlier?

Gerald: Yes, exactly. Then we’re writing those down and noting them. In the separate sections, we’re noting them and pulling them together. We’re also noting them in the joint session in the moment to moment exchanges. That, we have found, is incredibly helpful. Again, it’s all about timing of when you do these things.

Lastly, I think what narrative work is most widely known for is the externalising language, externalising the problem. The problem is the problem. The person is not the problem. What are the externalising issues? When we’re in a conflict as mediators, we’re dealing with issues of betrayal, issues of distrust, unfairness, injustice. We’re looking at, ‘What are the effects of betrayal on you and on this conflict? What are the effects of distrust had on you coming to some sense of agreement or sense of understanding?’

We’re constantly externalising the problem and its effects on the parties. They don’t typically use this language, but it starts to loosen up space for them to move away from what we call these essentialising, totalising descriptions of the other to something that is a little bit more nuanced, that there are some spaces that they haven’t thought about before, new entry points that haven’t been considered.

As they go, realising that the suffering that the other party is engaged in, especially when we’re dealing with conflicts that I’ve said are involved in parties that have got some stake in some kind of ongoing relational space rather than, say, an insurance company that’s paying out some money to someone who was an accident victim.

The insurance company doesn’t care about the person. They just want to know what financially is it going to take. The agent isn’t going to be personally hurt, although the company might be affected by how much it’s going to cost them.

We really, as much as possible, want to look at the effects of problems on persons. Those would be some of the techniques that really stand out in our practice.

Aled: That’s incredibly helpful. Gerald, I know we’re coming to the finale. I’m pushing a little bit. Are you okay to go on for a few more minutes?

Gerald: Yes, I’m fine.

Aled: Okay, that’s great. I was curious to know, you’ve got the parties now in a space where they’re entertaining alternative stories. Maybe they’ve softened in their view towards the other party. They can start to sort of see their hopes and goals. There’s light at the end of the tunnel. What does that part of the mediation look like from a narrative perspective? The conclusion of the mediation? I didn’t say ‘the settlement’ – I used ‘conclusion’.

Gerald: Yeah. One of the things that we do knowing, again, the mediator is very knowledgeable at this point about the terrain and knowing some of the openings that were shown in the separate sessions. So after creating spaces for people with some mapping about the problem-saturated story and its effects, we’re going to ask them . . . this is a technique that I haven’t spoken of called ‘evaluating preferences’.

You’re going to ask them, ‘Given what has happened, are you both willing . . . ?’ Even though you could say it’s obvious because they’ve signed up for a mediation, but we actually want parties to verbalise this. ‘Are you willing to now work together in some ways to address the problems that you and we have all identified? Are you ready for that next step?’ The parties are going to, most of the time, be saying, ‘Yes we are.’

Then we’re going to talk about, ‘What has already happened that has been a step that you’ve made in your past that we can build on? What is something that’s in your histories together, in your work, in your lives – in the context of this problem and before it came – that we can build on that worked? What’s the next step?’

So we really go in these small steps of bringing out moves that the other party can make, and the moves that they themselves can make towards the identified goals, that both of them have expressed, at the beginning of the joint session. They’ve already practised identifying the goals with us in the separate sessions. We’ve helped groom them, and with them, really co-create with them a way of talking about the goals and the hopes.

Then we go, ‘Now that you have understood the nature of the issues, how can we build towards those hopes that you’ve shared?’ Now we’re focusing on what’s working. As we focus on what’s working, it leads to other new openings of other things that can build on that.

Again, it’s narrative mediation. We’re using the story. ‘What’s the next step in the story based on the new moves, the new openings, the new possibilities, the history that you have put aside because the problem-saturated story took over? What can we build on here?’

Then we go with a lot of curiosity and a lot of persistence, in teasing out those elements as we move through the process. It can take a while. We’re saying, ‘If you’re going to work with us, we are very unlikely to complete what you want to do, in this one session, even your session is a couple of hours.’ Of course, some of us do day-long sessions.

Give them some time to sculpt and build and progress. Again, the relational process is so critical. If you’ve now moved towards building a small degree of trust, a small degree of understanding, a small degree of respect, you’re then in a position to be able to be creative about options to address problems, rather than that old model where parties are sitting there pretty much steaming and upset with one another, and go through this harrowing brainstorming process of generating eight different possibilities about how to resolve it.

It’s such hard, tedious work because the relational climate is not suited to being able to progress. If we attend to the relational climate as pivotal, then when we get into the creative acts about, ‘What ideas do we have about progressing?’, things move much more quickly in those latter phases of the sessions.

Aled: Excuse me a sec.

Something that came to my mind then when you talked about building on the relational aspect was the similarity with transformative mediation. It’s that idea that you are trying to support the parties in their conflict interaction but also just trying to help them nurture a sense of compassion towards each other.

Gerald: Right.

Aled: It seems, you talked earlier on, you mentioned something else. I can’t remember what it was. It made me think of the transformative approach. Do you see those similarities?

Gerald: I think there are some similarities. I think conceptually, philosophically I think there is quite a lot of strong overlap. I think having met with Joe Folger, we shared some space at a conference in Moscow actually a couple years ago. I think some of the distinctions are about the management of the process.

I think in narrative practice, the mediator is much more active in managing the dynamics because we’re teasing out . . . We’re doing a lot of nuanced things. We want to guide. We want to guide how the problem-saturated story is talked about. We want to guide the externalising, the mapping. We want to talk explicitly about evaluating preferences.

Then, in this double listening process, we’re doing some very fine tuned work in managing the conversation in eliciting these kinds of elements that have been put aside.

I’m not at all knowledgeable about transformative mediation. The one thing that just stayed with me was it tends to be more of a free-wheeling context. There can be a lot of full expression of feelings, emotions, and issues the parties had prior to the conflict, and then coming together and there being a lot of room to go where the parties want to go in terms of venting or expressing.

We tend to want to take the edge off the intense venting in the separate sessions. There’s going to be some venting in the joint sessions, but we’re trying to minimise that because we don’t want to lose sight of all of these other pieces. People can get carried away with the venting and not always confident that we can stay tracking the preferred narrative. I think the narrative mediator is a lot more hands-on in guiding the whole process from beginning to end.

Aled: Yeah. I also got that, so when you asked the parties, ‘Are you now ready to start evaluating your options? Or thinking about how you might work together to put something?’ That’s not a question that a transformative mediator would ask.

A transformative mediator would say, ‘Where would you like to go next? I think we’ve reached a junction in the conversation. What do you think? Where would you like to go next? Continue on this path or go on a different one?’ So trusting that the parties will do what they need to do to move it forward.

It seems to me, as a narrative mediator, you’ve got to hold so much. There’s so much going on. You’ve got all these stories. You’ve got all these plots and characters. You’ve got the conflict-saturated story. Then you’ve got all of the deconstructive listening that you’re doing to try to locate the social . . . Crikey.
Do you work alone or do you work with a co-mediator?

You’re back.

Do you work alone or do you work with a co-mediator? What’s the typical . . . ?

Have you got me there?

Gerald: No I don’t.

Aled: Hold on. How about now?

Gerald: You’re back. There is a lot going on. It’s like any practice. There’s a lot of different elements to it. Specifically, because we’re so interested in the dominant socio-cultural landscapes that are playing out in individual people’s lives, we feel that we’ve got some kind of ethical responsibility. Not only to address that element in ways that make sense to the parties, but also as mediators. The whole notion of mediator neutrality or mediator . . .

What are some of the other elements that we prize, that mediators have this inscrutable sense of being completely balanced in the way that they present themselves?

We’re very much as interested in what are the socio-cultural issues playing out with the mediator? We have to manage that too because we do want the parties to leave the process saying, ‘I felt treated fairly. I felt I was treated respectfully. I had my say as much as the other. I felt I was treated in an even-handed way.’

The idea of mediator neutrality and impartiality, if we don’t look at our own social location in the process, we’re missing a big part of the issue. We would say we’ve got an ethical responsibility to help address for ourselves, and the people we’re working with, these wider socio-cultural forces.

It is hands-on rather than more of a kind of free-wheeling, let things fall where they may. When you’re looking at parties that are sitting in front of you, their lives, from their social location, their own social position and hierarchies can be very different. Not being thoughtful about that and having a very loose, not very thoughtful idea about what’s going on here, can limit avenues of exploration that could create new openings that weren’t there before.

Aled: Listening to you talk . . . First of all, I’ve been captivated by your storytelling and your use of metaphor just in this interview. Is that a predisposition that you have, or is it something that comes through the work that you’ve done?

Gerald: Having had decades of work studying the narrative metaphor in the particular way that we have, now it’s so much a habit of how I look at life. I look, truly, at conflict in my own family through a socio-cultural lens. Why are we fighting? If we’re fighting about something, what is going on in the background that we’re not paying attention to? Why do I have these expectations of what is about to happen next? Where is that coming from?

It sounds a bit nerdy, but I really apply this to my own life so that I’m constantly looking. It’s so fascinating when you travel because it then shows up so often. Why am I irritated about being in a restaurant and the waiter/waitress hasn’t come in five minutes to check in and say, ‘Would you like some water?’

I’ve been living in the United States for 16 years. I have been groomed in this culture of customer service. When I got back to New Zealand and I’m sitting for five minutes and no one shows up, or 10 minutes and I’m starting to get irritated. ‘Wait a minute, they don’t tip in New Zealand. Waiters in most restaurants I’ve ever been in New Zealand don’t show up in five minutes.’

It touches every aspect of our lives. When I’m sitting in front of doctors meeting with patients who have been devastated by some kind of consequence. What are the background cultural forces at play here that are so devastating?

The patient and their family thought, ‘I’m going to be cured. This doctor is going to cure me of this illness. I’m going to walk out of this hospital. I had this terminal illness, or this devastating health problem that may have no solution, but I thought that what’s doctors do. They cure people. And things have got worse.’

Every conflict, I just can’t help myself but think about the dominant socio-cultural forces at work and the stories that we then create around them, that then pathologize the other, and find characterological personality faults in the person that we are struggling with.

Aled: This is absolutely fascinating. It really is.

I want to ask you how do you teach this, but I feel like that’s a whole other series of interviews.

If I wanted to train as a narrative mediator, Gerald, what would me involved in that? Where would I go? What sort of teaching do you do? How do I find out more about this?

Gerald: There are three of us trainers working internationally right now: Sara Cobb, who you’ve interviewed before, John Winslade, myself. We have some other colleagues in New Zealand. We tend to go where we’re invited. There’re many other things we’re involved with, but we’re invited to go somewhere to do some training. I’m off to Japan in a couple of weeks looking at narrative mediation in the healthcare context in Japan.

So where a community is interested in what we’re doing, we will go there and we’ll want to learn about the context. Context is everything. If you’re working in labour relations, working in real estate, working in insurance, working with family, community-based issues, healthcare, every context is so different.

Then you think about, what are the structures that we would need to use to make progress in dealing . . . in this particular situation?

Aled: Yeah. When we finish the interview, I want to find out a bit more about where you go to teach this. I’d be really keen to get you over to the U.K. if I could gather a herd of us together, of sheep, to study.

What really interests me is the theory underpinning this approach. It feels like there’s real substance there, real meat there. Plenty of stuff to get you thinking, plenty of stuff to go, in the course of the mediation. ‘What do I need to do next and what’s the theory underpinning my intervention? Where is that coming from?’ That’s what really interests me.

Gerald: I think that’s a fair analysis. The narrative work, as it really does have a very robust theoretical underpinning, that really draws on some very powerful ideas. Newer ideas are being introduced all of the time in this work, work I haven’t mentioned from Ken Gergen in the social constructionist work is, again, enormously influential.

You’ve got disciplines of sociology that go back into the ’60s. You’ve got all of the work from the critical theorists from Europe. You’ve got these disciplines of anthropology, history, and more recently psychology. I think this work does draw on a variety of social-science disciplines that I think make it a very robust practice.

When you’re in stuck situations, you do have a lot of theoretical work to draw on to free you up to think freshly about a way of proceeding.

Aled: Yeah. It just sounds really, really fascinating. I’m pretty sure this is the first of many conversations. I hope it’s the first of many conversations you and I have. Look, I feel like I’ve been overly indulgent [sic] in this interview.

Gerald: I always enjoy talking about our work.

Aled: It’s been a real education. I really appreciate it. I know people watching this, it will have opened their eyes. I really hope that they reach out to you and find out a bit more. Where can they go to find out more?

Gerald: They just need to Google my name and they can find contact details.

Aled: Super. Gerald, let me be the first to say a huge thank you. Thank you very much for your time and your generosity today.

Gerald: It’s been a pleasure.

Aled: Thanks, Gerald.

About the mediator

Gerald Monk Profile Pic

Gerald Monk is a Professor in the Department of Counseling and School Psychology at San Diego State University and teaches in the Marriage and Family Therapy Program. He is a practicing Marriage and Family Therapist in California and a mediator and trainer in collaborative divorce practices and mediation in health care. He has worked as a psychologist and counselor educator in New Zealand for fifteen years prior to moving to the United States ... View Mediator