Bringing Shared Ethics to Mediation to Transform Conflict

Bringing Shared Ethics to the Table: 

Creative Problem Solving and Transformative Mediation

as Tools for Resolution of Controversial Conflicts


Terri L. Kelly

Department of Conflict Resolution

Portland State University

Suggested citation:

Kelly, T. L. (1999). “Bringing Shared Ethics to the Table: Creative Problem Solving and Transformative Mediation as Tools for Resolution of Controversial Conflicts.” (Unpublished graduate paper, Portland State University, May 1999). Portland, OR: Author.



When opposing parties agree to come to the table to resolve conflicts surrounding controversial issues such as the abortion issue, gun control, and the death penalty, it is ludicrous to think that ethics can be kept out of the discussion. Though the “old school” of mediation dictates that mediators remain mostly diffident to such a discussion (Leizak), a “new school” is developing that welcomes ethical issues into the dialogue and seeks transformations of thinking between parties in place of or in addition to conflict resolution. This approach has been mostly applied to interpersonal disputes and has been shown to attain the transformative goals desired. Another approach to problem solving, termed simply Creative Problem Solving, has worked well in corporate culture to discover shared values between disputing parties for the purpose of reconciliation. It is the purpose of the paper to demonstrate that key elements of these combined approaches can also resolve or reconcile parties to complex, controversial public issues.

Creative Problem Solving

Discovering the root motivations and shared ethics of parties to such issues is a goal all conflict resolvers should aspire to. One method I have found useful in the discovery process is “Creative Problem Solving,” a term given to a process of conflict resolution developed by Roger L. Firestein, PhD, and advocated by The Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College in New York, with an eye toward helping solve problems in corporate culture. Creative Problem Solving adherents base the process on a few assumptions. The first assumption is that creativity is a novelty that is useful, meaning that novel insight alone will not do, but must be accompanied by action. Secondly, that there are two kinds of creativeness – adaptive creativity and innovative creativity. Those who are “adaptive” use creativity to improve an existing product; while the “innovative” creator comes up ideas for entirely new products. Lastly, that creative flow follows the same path as in nature – divergence, and then convergence of that which works (natural selection). These together form a directive that Creative Problem Solving is for new problems and new situations, not for routines or procedures that are already working. (Firestein)

Creative Problem Solving is simply a set of tools to use in situations where other problem-solving methods aren’t working. To begin with, and most important to the entire structure of the process, it is important to phrase problems in ways they can be solved. The phrasing or “framing” of the problem to be solved is the crucial element in solving the problem. It is crucial that one asks the right question, or you might end up solving the wrong problem. It is also important to allow a solution the time it takes to work. The following factors allow for a careful structuring of the problem to be solved and its solution:

1) Beware the complicated solution – that is indicative of solving the wrong problem.

2) Form problem statements into questions that start with “How might I…” or “In what ways can we…” and be consistently putting the problems to the test by asking why the particular solution is sought.

3) A good way to challenge assumptions is to change your perspective on the problem.

4) Sometimes the real problem is in the answer to what you think is the problem. Here’s where it’s crucial to ask “why” of every problem statement.

5) Brainstorm & cluster ideas, and resist stringing problem statements together into a sentence that is really just a long strings of different problem phrases.

The next step in the process is to defer judgement while generating many ideas. Assume that no solution is outlandish, so that all participants in the brainstorming process feel free to speak up. Lastly, evaluate these ideas positively, by using affirmative, deliberate handling of each novelty. This process should then allow for narrowing down to the most ideal and workable solution. And that solution should be a best match for the problem. (Firestein)


Transformative Mediation

Transformative approaches to conflict resolution include transformative mediation, the conceptions of transformative peacemaking and conflict transformation, (Lederach) the analytical problem solving/human needs approach to conflict transformation, research on the transformation of conflicts from unmanageable to manageable, and other techniques for successfully dealing with complex conflicts, particularly dialogue and constructive confrontation. (Burgess)

The transformative approach to mediation does not seek resolution of the immediate problem, but rather, seeks the empowerment and mutual recognition of the parties involved. Empowerment means enabling the parties to define their own issues and to seek solutions on their own. The “mediator” role is therefore dynamic and distant, as opposed to rule-making and direct involvement. Folger and Bush, leaders in the transformative conflict resolution movement, define “recognition” to mean considering the perspective, views, and experiences of the other. Recognition, they say, “means the evocation in individuals of acknowledgment and empathy for the situation and problems of others.” (Folger & Bush) Recognition means enabling the parties to see and understand the other person’s point of view–to understand how they define the problem and why they seek the solution that they do. (Burgess) Leizak also mentioned that “putting yourselves in each other’s shoes” is something he asks as a rule of his mediation clients. (Leizak)

The key concepts and goals of the transformative model of conflict resolution are to recognize and give empowerment to the parties involved. (Folger & Bush, 1996). Folger & Bush introduced ten “hallmarks” that distinguish transformative mediation from other forms of intervention. Here is a summary of these ten hallmarks:

1. In the opening statement, the transformative mediator will explain the mediator’s role and the objectives of mediation as being focused on empowerment and recognition.

2. The transformative mediator will leave responsibility for the outcomes with the parties.

3. A transformative mediator will not be judgmental about the parties’ views and decisions.

4. Transformative mediators take an optimistic view of the parties’ competence and motives.

5. Transformative mediators allow and are responsive to parties’ expression of emotions.

6. Transformative mediators allow for and explore parties’ uncertainty.

7. Transformative mediators remain focused on what is currently happening in the mediation setting.

8. Transformative mediators are responsive to parties’ statements about past events.

9. Transformative mediators realize that conflict can be a long-term process and that mediation is one intervention in a longer sequence of conflict interactions.

10. Transformative mediators feel (and express) a sense of success when empowerment and recognition occur, even in small degrees. They do not see a lack of settlement as a “failure.”

A number of conflict theorists and practitioners advocate for the pursuit of “conflict transformation,” as opposed to “conflict resolution” or “conflict management.” Conflict transformation, as described by Lederach, does not suggest that we simply eliminate or control conflict, but rather recognize and work with its dynamic nature. By this he means that social conflict is naturally created by humans who are involved in relationships. Once conflict occurs, it transforms those events, people, and relationships that created the initial conflict. Conflict transformation is also a prescriptive concept. It suggests that left alone, conflict can have destructive consequences. However, the consequences can be modified or transformed so that self-images, relationships, and social structures improve as a result of conflict instead of being harmed by it. (Burgess)

Discovering Shared Ethics

I believe that by combining key elements of these two process, shared ethics will arise that can serve as a basis for resolution of complex conflicts. By “shared ethics” I mean that at the root of opposite sides of a controversy, there are shared values driving the controversy. The Right to Life group and the Right to Choose group share the ethic that a person’s life has value and that people deserve respect. Though this is a widely recognized concept, it is still a valuable starting point, made even more valuable to both parties when they “discover” the sharing of it through a transformative mediation. Proponents and opponents of the death penalty share the ethic that every human being has a right to feel safe from harm. Beginning a transformative mediation with this point, and using Creative problem Solving techniques in the “discovery” of this shared value, goes a long way to bringing a resolution that satisfies all parties involved. It may not mean that one side changes its values or joins the other side, but that both parties transform their thinking about the other, and therefore come one step closer towards working out solutions that satisify the principles of both sides. For instance, the opposite sides of the abortion issue may redirect their time and efforts away from opposing each other and instead gather together to promote better and more readily available methods of birth control. Proponents and opponents of the death penalty may discover that their shared need for safety is a good starting point for promoting intensive safety education curriculum’s in the schools. If none of these outcomes happen, at least there is a chance that transformative thinking occurs on some levels, or with some of the people, through these processes.



Though these combined processes look good in theory, there is nothing to guarantee that they will work all the time in action. But the overriding principle behind their combination is to allow for ethics to be part of the dialogue, without making ethics the *only* issue in the dialogue. Transformative thinking without allowing for personal ethics is not only nearly impossible to realize, but most likely detrimental to the outcome. Building a relationship upon shared values is a start toward resolving the tension controversial issues naturally instigate.



Mohandas Gandhi

“Nobody can hurt me without my permission.”