In 1985, I co-founded a mediation service in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. It was free, local, and volunteer-driven. And I learned to mediate.

I had just completed ten years as a local elected official, in which my responsibility had been to find answers, often where problems were intractable and solutions illusive. In sharp contrast, my responsibility as a mediator was fundamentally different. I had to set aside my own ideas for solutions and, instead, impartially elicit solutions from disputants. The change was literally transformational for someone (me) who was habituated to finding solutions

Since then, I’ve mediated many kinds of disputes, for example among:

  • Co-workers whose conflict was disrupting the strategic planning efforts of their high-tech start up.
  • Senior government officials of a Caribbean island and foreign owners of their electric utility
  • Members of a local elected board
  • Members of a nonprofit group
  • Partners in a small business
  • Neighbors arguing about a proposed development in their neighborhood
  • A divorced couple restructuring their child-custody agreement
Mediation and Facilitation – What’s the Difference?

The field of alternative dispute resolution (which is where mediation and facilitation reside) is as riddled with jargon as any other field. We talk much too loosely about ‘consensus’ and ‘stakeholders’ without defining what we mean. We even create confusion over perfectly clear words like ‘agreement’ or ‘interests’ I would like to distinguish between mediation and facilitation. For me, mediation involves a conflict that needs resolution, while facilitation requires management of a process where participants have a common interest.

  • A mediator helps those in conflict find a solution that is satisfactory to all
    involved. A typical mediation goes through stages: assessment of the situation, determination of the feasibility of a mediated agreement; selecting the parties; developing the process; information gathering; generating options; analysis; creating potential solutions; seeking consensus; future steps
  • A facilitator helps a group engage around a common goal.. The focus is a task – develop a land use plan, learn about hazardous waste disposal options, improve service delivery for an agency — not resolution of a conflict. A typical facilitation involves a group of people and requires guidance of that group through education, discussion, and perhaps decision-making. A mediator has specific conflict resolution skills, which may be very useful in any situation, including facilitation. The facilitator’s skills may also crossover and contribute to a mediation process.