Mediation and Peacemaking

 © 2001 Douglas E. Noll

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July 2001

Mediation encompasses a broad array of processes that typically involves a third party working with the disputants. The third party may or may not be neutral or impartial. For example, in communal societies, elders may mediate disputes between families. They know all the parties and may have an interest in the outcome. Because of age, station, and experience, and particularly because the elder is not impartial and neutral, the elder is sought out by the parties.

Mediation in modern culture has taken on a more formal process. Mediators may be called in to work with labor disputes and, in the last 20 years, broker settlements of litigated disputes. In addition, mediation has gained increasing popularity in community and churches disputes and in international disputes.

Peacemaking, in the sense that a third party is involved in a dispute, is similar to mediation. The difference between mediation and peacemaking has to do with value. Peacemaking seeks positive peace--restored relationships, personal responsibility, and apology and forgiveness when appropriate. Mediation tends to be more value-neutral and may be satisfied with negative peace. That is, mediation concentrates on the cessation of conflict and resolution of disputes without necessarily regarding the relationships.

Peacemaking actively looks for ways to help people in conflict to relate to each other in respectful ways. Obviously, peacemaking is not suitable for all conflicts, but should be a consideration when relationships are at issue. Furthermore, peacemaking may demand more of the practitioner in terms of knowledge and experience than other forms of mediation.

Peacemaking also differs from mediation in what the parties are asked to do. In peacemaking, people are asked, often against their current feelings, to activate their capacity for good. This requires peacemakers to support, hold, and encourage the parties as they struggle to overcome the negativity of their conflict. In mainstream mediation, the process is not so demanding. People are asked to come to the process in good faith, but they are not always asked to activate their capacity for good.

Asking people to activate their capacity for good is unusual in the business world. Our competitive, individualist business culture discourages people from activating their capacity for good on the economic rationale that people should look out for their own interests first. In addition, many people like to be viewed as confident, competent, can-do problem-solvers, regardless of the conflicts. Some think that they lose a reputational (read "marketing") advantage by trying to make things as rights as possible. Finally, many people believe, incorrectly, that activating their capacity for good will make them look weak or allow others to exploit them. Despite these barriers, when people engage in true peacemaking, they unleash certain powers within themselves that result in overwhelmingly positive solutions to their conflicts.

Finally, peacemaking involves much more than clarifying issues and managing an auction (the multiple exchange of offers and counter-offers) for the purchase and sale of settlement. Peacemaking involves the strategic questions of knowing what to do, why, and how, when and where, by whom and to or with whom, and sometimes, against whom. In contrast, the mediator of litigated disputes typically sees conflict as an object or problem to be solved. Using tools of legal and business analysis, the problem is defined, likely outcomes are explored, and competitive negotiations lead towards an agreed result or impasse.

Peacemaking is quite different. Peacemaking is resolution-as-process instead of resolution-as-object. The peacemaking processes do their own work. The peacemaker’s task is to provide the parties what they need to do their work. In peacemaking, people do for themselves most of what has been done for them in the past. That is to say, instead of being unconscious and unaware of the dynamics of the conflict relationship, the peacemaking process makes those dynamics explicit and available for examination. In this way, people can agree on behaviors and relationships that make sense to them. Peacemakers give up the idea that they make peace or stop conflict. Instead, they simply put the pieces in play in a proper environment, control the energy, and let the parties work.

This orientation challenges traditional roles. Lawyers, for example, often see themselves as professionals, with technical knowledge of how to do the job. They know best, otherwise why would they not be hired? The idea of letting the parties do the hard lifting in transforming conflicts into peace also cuts against the economic grain. If clients can solve their own problems, why do they need a professional? The answer is that clients need the wisdom, experience, knowledge, and advice lawyers can offer, but do not always need to be the silent participant. Thus, in peacemaking, the roles of lawyer and client are often reversed.

Unlike mediation, which is often viewed as solving a one-shot problem, peacemaking sees disputes and conflicts and peace all as temporary conditions. Peacemakers expect conflict to emerge and recede to draw attention to issues needing consideration. Thus, peacemakers are not concerned as much with specifics as they are with the conditions that will support the emergence of peace over the long term.

Douglas E. Noll, Esq. is a lawyer specializing in peacemaking and mediation of difficult and intractable conflicts throughout California. His firm, Douglas E. Noll and Associates is based in Central California. He may be reached through his website and email at

© 2001, Douglas E. Noll