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Communication in Crisis / The Discrepant Role of the Mediator


Erving Goffman’ social psychology is based on the assumption that actors in everyday life act as the actors act in theatre. The only difference is that the actors in theatre are professional roleplayers who act in accordance with the script written by a playwright while everday roleplayers play in accordance with the common defintion of the situation. The role of mediator falls into the category of „discrepant role”. Performers of this role are to struggle with conflicting expectations. They get in the possession of secrets which make the perfomance more troublesome.

Secrets are a culster of information blocked from getting by outsiders. Dark secrets represent knowledge of information that contradicts to the image the group is presenting outsiders. Strategic secrets are connected with the group’s goals and means of realization of the goals. Inside secrets are supposed to know only by the members of the group order to enhance their cohesion. Entrusted secrets serve to ensure trustworthiness.

Performers of discrepant roles have access to the secrets by pretending that they are members of the group. The „informer” is a pretender of a group member who gets the trust of the real members of the group. The „spy” or the „spotter” is such a pseudo member who in fact belongs to another group to whom he/she discloses the secret. Such is the the „food critic” disguised as a client in a restaurant who later reveals the information in an article published in the newspaper.

The „mediator” or „go-between” cannot be considered as a pretender because he/she actually acts with the consent of both parties in the conflict. In commuting between the conflicting parties the mediator learns many secrets. In order to be trusted by all sides the secrets must not be not disclosed to anyone.


Mediation can be defined as the communication process faciliated by the mediator between two or more parties in conflict. The assistance of the mediator should be acceptable to all parties. The objective of the mediator is to help the adversaries to help to transform the will to strugge with each other into the will to coexist. Mediators are typically individuals assisted by a team of experts. There are medations on all levels of social conflict. Mediation can get help parties in search for mutually rewarding solution and avoinding tendencies toward zero-sum games. The parties in need for mediation are couples willing to divorce, perpetrators and victims as well as ethnic, religious and national groups in conflict.

Exhauston, desperation, hopelessness are the primary motives driving the parties on the path of mediation.


Matters of „principle” stemming from identity are especially difficult to settle. Symbolic issues, disputes involving matters considered as „holy” make the division lines rigid and impenetrable.

The chances of the success are considerably reduced if the request for mediation services is unilateral. There is no hope of settlement if the parties in conflict do not trust the mediator.

In order to avoid zero-sum state the mediator should have resources. Under conditions of resource scarcity it is extremely unlikely that mediaton will succeed because scarcity of resource limits the number of the mutually beneficial solutions that may enhance the motivation of the parties to search for them till they reach the settlement.

High level of conflict correlates negatively with the likelihood of the success of mediation. The mutual perception of untrustworthiness, unreasonableness and irrationality are obstacles of mediaton. The realization of the need for mediation does not emerge spontaneoulsy. Mediation of border disputes between nation states has been closely linked to the „hurting stalemate” (Touval and Zartman, 1989) that is not easy to be overcome.

There is not much chance for mediation between parties of unequal power. In conflics in which one of the parties is more resourceful,the one who is more self-confident and better able to manipulate with the economic and political consequences of the struggle, the motivation to take part in the mediation will be not of the same degree.

Nonetheless, skillful mediators can overcome the obstacle by modifying some of the negative characteristics of the situation. The mere fact that the conflicting parties sit together to settle their dispute may result in benefit from the mediation even if there will be no agreement. The opponents deconstruct the dehumanized image of each other, issues of the dispute can be seen more clearly and partial agreement can be reached that prepares the ground for further agreement.

The mediaton targets the will of the parties. Mediation succeeds between warring groups if they become convinced that the costs of continuing conflict become not worth to pay anymore.

Empowerment and recognition

Successful mediators aim at to strengthening each opponent’s ability to understand the relavant needs of each other including the ability to become responsive to the perspectives of each other. Empowerment and recognition are the two major objectives of the successful mediaton ensuring peace throuhg self-reflection of the parties.

Egypt in 1974 in its conflict with Israel was eager to be mediated by the United States because of its strong economic influence ot Israel. Affinity with one of the parties can facilitate the mediator’s role provided he/she continues to be impartial.

Third parties may decide to mediate if interests of their own are at stake. The exposure to the self-interested motives for mediation of the mediator are effective in convincing the parties in conflict to seek mediation.

Mediators can act in a task oriented or in a socioemotional style. The task orientated medator can be settlement oriented mediator or poblem solving mediator. The task oriented mediator is primarily interested in reaching consensual agreement on any terms definig the mediator’s role as an impartial outsider’s role. The problem solver acts in a manner of committing himself to the role of mediator concentrating on the joint creative problem solving.

The socioemotional mediators’ driving force is the optimism about the outcomes of the mediaton. They are keen on stabilizing the long-term relationship between the parties expecting their ability to find their own solution.

The role of the mediator

Discrepant roles are usually very stressful. The mediator’s role is not an exception. Mediators work in isolation between contradicting expectations. Their neutrality and impartiality is frequently contested by both sides. The role, consequently, contains contradictory elements and is often misunderstood by each of the parties. In order to avoid cynicism and burnout three maxims should be observed.

(1)Realistic expectations

While mediators should be optimistic concening the ability of the conflicting parties to manage their relationship an objective appraisal of the motivation and circumstances of of the parties is needed. „Settlement mania” is the disease of mediators who do not take into account that regardless of their best efforts there are many disputes which cannot be solved.


Mediators should be aware of their role definitions. Mediators with self-awareness will not be vulnerable to unrealistic expectations for immediate success and anxieties for failure. The self-awareness of the mediator helps to communicate the parties appropriate expectations of their role as well. The parties in conflict do not know what are the expectations of them in the process of mediation and they enter in the process without inadequate notions.

(3)Reflective learning

Reflective learning should be systematic. In order to ensure reflective learning protocols should be written after each session. The protocols should include records of the faciltiating or inhibiting characteristisc of the parties and their circumstances, the successful or failed interventions Mediation is a lonely but not asocial acitivity. A team of consisting of reflective members can provide intellectual and emotional support. The skills in team discourses are parallel with the skills needed in mediation as well. Empathy, curiosity, flexibility of means and persistence of objectives. Insights of reflection must be tested in sessions from session.

Types of interventions

Reflexive interventions apply rapport and diagnosis. Rapport can be established by showing sincere concern about the conflict. Each side should feel emphatic understanding and evenhanded behavior. The result of rapport-building wiil be the acceptability of the mediator that is more important than just the appearance of neutrality and impartiality. Diagnosis preceding intervention can reveal the hidden dimensions of sensitivity and the dynamics between the parties.

Contextual interventions represent the view that the mediator is only a catalyst and facilitator who ought not to be proponent of a single solution. Contextual interventions include suggesting norms of communication, managing emotions, respectful listening and language.

Structural interventions decide about the persons taking part in the negotiation session. Separate meetings with parties are results of structural interventions. Caucus is an effective means of avoidig impasse. On the other hand, caucus can result distrust between the parties creating a climate of secrecy.

Substantial interventions deal with the issues directly. Mediator interventions can be considered as substantial if the focus on issues of identification, agenda setting, and proposal setting. Part of the substantial contributions is aimed at to minimizing the risks of noncomplience. The substantial activity of the mediator provides the assistance in selling the agreement to outsider parties monitoring, setting the procedures for dealing with intentional and nonintentional noncompliance, helping the parties to maintain peace in the face of opposititon from extremist factions, encouragement to return to mediation if disagreements resurfaces during the implementation phase.

The behavior of the medator can move along a continuum ranging from the non-directive at one end to the assertive on the other end. Assertiveness cuts across the three types of intervention. Assertive and coercive medator tactics seem to be more effective than mild and non-directive interventions. Pressure tactics are especially effective in producing settlements if the conflict is intense and polarization of the positions make the parties blind and deaf to each other’s arguments.

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