Mediative Approaches to Enhancing Group Effectiveness


All groups are going to encounter differences. Often the most vocal, the most senior, the most powerful, will override those with less agency; people may then accommodate, avoid raising their disagreement, and over time, even leave the group. It is healthy and normal to have disagreement; group processes offer people opportunity to work creatively with difference.

Leaders with a facilitative (meaning “to make easy”) style generally are able to seize opportunities to influence in a positive way, to engage creative thinking and to encourage agreement reaching, aided by their position and authority. To enhance the group’s effectiveness, leaders may also incorporate aspects of integrative and restorative approaches that mediators employ. Those who aren’t leaders in a group, but want to assist in the group’s functioning, can do the same. We often rely on the leader/chair/president of an organization to create and sustain good process; groups can function much more effectively if others in the group participate in not just what the group does, but how it does it.

The rights-based orientation of our adversarial justice system has a long history in Western culture, and an established place in managing conflict. It has serious limits if rights are the only basis upon which decisions are made. Mediators use interest-and-values-based approaches to minimize the adversarial nature of conflicts and promote consensual agreement-making.

Indigenous wisdom has taught the use restorative approaches to deal with harms in a non- punitive way. Rights–based approaches are only used as a fallback, not as a foundation.

Benefits of mediative approaches include increased buy-in, greater creativity and preservation of relationships. What aspects of these approaches can be useful for group members engaged with conflict?

Here are a few ideas gleaned from my time facilitating, mediating and teaching collaborative approaches:

  1. Setting context: A group’s work cannot be only about today’s agenda; it exists in a larger context which needs to be recognized. Pay attention to your language. What is it your group is here to do? What are the barriers to accomplishing those goals? Try to state these in a positive way. The emotional/psychological environment matters in these settings. Attending to details is important; at the same time, people can get lost in them and lose sight of the overarching goal(s). Others fear closure – leaving something critical out, not having enough information, enough data, enough time, losing social connection if goals are met and the group disbands, and so on. This is why context has to be “reset” time and again within a group. Use language that focusses upon the group’s mission/purpose, working together, common ground, and heading toward problem-solving.
  1. Process focus: Recognize that good faith engagement and attention to process increase opportunities for settlement of some or all of the issues. Modelling a respectful environment, helping craft a process that has integrity, ensuring everyone involved has a chance to be heard – these practices satisfy procedural and many of the psychological and emotional interests that people don’t disclose. Too often we rely only on the “what” of a

task, not the “how” or “why” of it. How something is decided can be just as important as what is decided. We’ve all seen good decisions/agreements get sabotaged because they were not made with the inclusion and involvement of necessary stakeholders. Enduring and wise solutions follow good process! This doesn’t mean full consensus is always needed, but rather an exploration of what the group means by consensus: how is it going to make its decisions? If the group is stuck and seemingly at an impasse, any member of the group can suggest a move away from content for the moment and a focus on process. Asking: “How are we doing process-wise?” “What are we missing?” can open a discussion that may well undo the stuckness.

  1. Integrative orientation: Think in terms of what is really going on, what matters, how to deal with the issues, what still needs to be addressed to reach agreement. Watch out for language such as “whether/or not”, and “either/or”. That language is reductionist and distributional; it narrows the range of possibilities. Mediative approaches try to expand possibilities and resources. Group members themselves tend to know best what resources are available and what potential outcomes are most promising. Don’t be afraid to consider a whole range of ideas for problem-solving and to keep options open until the best solutions emerge. An idea that seems impractical or even crazy can lead to another idea that has promise. Think of problem-solving in terms of building agreement, piece by piece. An integrative orientation says “yes, and…” instead of “yes, but…”. This tiny shift in language invites disparate ideas rather than shutting down nascent ones with the eraser-like “but”. Ask questions instead: What more can you say about that? How do you see that working? What else can we do? What ideas do others have that could build on that? Integrative approaches energize and build engagement. Distributional ones can divide the group into camps, invite competition (winners & losers), limit imagination and reduce commitment to the group. Make sure your group members want to be in it!

(Next week: Part 3)