What guides mediator decisionmaking? Kenneth Kressel and his colleagues used reflective research methods to explore this question in three studies, which he describes in “How Do Mediators Decide What to Do? Implicit Schemas of Practice and Mediator Decisionmaking” (Ohio State University Journal of Dispute Resolution, 2013, p. 709). The theme that threads through all three studies is that mediators make decisions that are derived from their unconscious and personal ideas about “the nature of conflict, the goals to be attained by intervention, and implicit intervention ‘scripts’.”

The first study utilized reflective team debriefings of live family mediations to explore why mediators made particular decisions. In the debriefings, the mediators involved in the study all discussed the decisions they made and the reasons for them. The study pointed to two approaches to mediating: the problem-solving style (PSS) and the settlement-oriented style (SOS). Mediators utilizing PSS focus on in-depth problem-solving, while mediators taking the SOS approach focus on surface positions and settlement. The study found that while both approaches are helpful, PSS worked better for more polarized cases. The study also revealed that mediators know much more than they can say, since so much decisionmaking is based on tacit knowledge that is largely unconscious.

Kressel’s second study (“Mediating among Scientists: A Mental Model of Expert Practice”, Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, 2009, p. 308) took a similar approach to examining ombuds decisionmaking during mediations at the National Institutes of Health. In conducting reflective case study with the ombuds team, Kressel and his colleagues found that here, too, the ombuds used two very different intervention scripts. Deep Problem-Solving focused on underlying interpersonal or systemic issues, while Tactical Problem-Solving stayed focused on the issues presented by the parties. Each ombuds spent time deciding which script best fit the dispute at hand.
The final study (“A Multidimensional An alysis of Conflict Mediator Style”, Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 2012, p. 135) examined the behavior and decisionmaking of expert, journeyman and novice mediators in a lab setting. Using a script about a roommate dispute, students played the parties and the mediators all mediated the same dispute. Afterward, the mediators watched a video of their mediation and discussed what they were thinking at particular times. The purpose of this study was to examine the role of formal models (such as facilitative, evaluative or transformative) in mediator decisionmaking. Through observation and conversation, Kressel confirmed that formal models only account for part of mediator decisionmaking. Implicit, often unconscious schemas guide mediators. These are based on intuition and “mini-theories” of conflict, and they may conflict with the explicit formal model the mediators state they follow.
Kressel differentiates between simple schemas and complex ones. Simple schemas rely on basic, linear scripts that reflect the mediator’s reliance on a formal model. Complex schemas involved a more diverse and nuanced script and rely much less on formal models for guidance. These schemas were accompanied by much more decisional stress on the part of the mediator. Which schema was more effective was seen partly as a function of fit with the dispute – fit with the parties’ expectations, and fit with the mediator’s interests and needs. Kressel ends the article with a call for more resources to be put into the type of reflective research used in these studies in order to advance the ADR field’s knowledge about competent practice.