The theme of the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation’s 2nd International Conference was Purpose Drives Practice: An International Conference on Transformative Mediation. I presented a workshop on open space technology on the first day and was a featured panelist in the closing plenary.
In 1994, Robert Baruch Bush and Joseph Folger first articulated the transformative framework in The Promise of Mediation. Since then, transformative theory and practice has grown and is used in mediation, facilitation, and conflict management training all over the world.
According to the transformative view, conflict is primarily about human interaction rather than violations of rights or conflicts of interest. Conflict is part of the basic dynamic of human interaction in which people struggle to balance concern for self with connections to others. When this balance is upset, human interaction becomes alienated and destructive. Simply put there is a crisis in human interaction.
Specifically, conflict tends to destabilize the parties’ experience of the self and the other, so that each party feels more vulnerable and more self-absorbed than they did before the conflict. Furthermore, these negative attitudes often feed into each other on all sides as parties interact, in a vicious circle that intensifies each party’s sense of weakness and self-absorption. Consequently, the interaction between the parties quickly degenerates and assumes a mutually-destructive, alienating, and dehumanizing character.
For most people, according to the transformative theory, being caught in this kind of destructive interaction is the most significant negative impact of conflict. However, the transformative framework posits that, despite conflict’s natural destabilizing impacts on interaction, people have the capacity to regain their footing and shift back to a restored sense of strength or confidence in self (the empowerment shift) and openness or responsiveness to the other (the recognition shift). Moreover, these positive moves also feed into each other on all sides, and the interaction can therefore regenerate and assume a constructive, connecting, and humanizing character. The model assumes that this transformation of the interaction itself is what matters most to parties in conflict—even more than resolution on favorable terms.