How Mediation Works – a relational view of interpersonal conflict

Dr Mike Talbot Articles

So we all know how mediation works, right? Wrong.

How many mediation practitioners do you know who seem to work without a clear understanding of why they do what they do? Sure, they know how to build rapport, listen actively, express empathy, re-frame, follow a staged process, write an agreement, maybe even stay impartial (on a good day!)

But to what extent can mediators explain at a sufficiently deep level why mediation usually works and sometimes doesn’t?

And by ‘sufficiently deep’ I mean what psychological insights do mediators have into the relational processes that are at play when conflict develops, when it turns into a dispute, and when it gets resolved with the support of an impartial third party?

Here, I outline some of the key ideas that make up a relational model of mediation: based on the idea of conflict as a rupture in an interpersonal relationship, supported by gestalt theory (more of that later), and informed by my eighteen years’ experience in mediating neighbourhood, workplace, commercial, and intra-family conflict.


How does conflict arise? A number of writers have tackled this one: Moore’s (2003) Circle of Conflict gives us five likely causes of disputes, Spillman & Spillman’s (1991) sequence of stages helps us see how conflict can escalate to the point of an all-out battle, while the transformative model (Bush & Folger, 1994) characterises two people’s conflict as being a state of disempowerment and poor mutual recognition. However, with the exception of Systems Theory (Bowen 1971, 2002), I have found little that addresses this fundamental question in terms of psychological processes: specifically, what goes on within and between the parties who begin to find themselves in conflict, and how can we use this to gain clues as to how to resolve that conflict?

My own approach to this question has been based on gestalt theory, as originally formulated by Fritz Perls and others (Perls et al, 1951, 1994). Gestalt theory, is a relational, or if you prefer, an interpersonal approach to explaining the human condition. It is concerned, in part, with how we establish full psychological contact with other people, and with how we let unfinished business and other blocks get in the way of that contact.

And I argue that can be helpful to see interpersonal conflict as being partly due to a severing of psychological contact: our approach to resolving that conflict can then be informed by gestalt theory’s ideas about how contact gets interrupted, and how a mediator can help to restore it.

Conflict as a loss of contact

Think of two workers in an organisation (although the argument would work just as well for two neighbours, two family members, or two people in a commercial dispute with an interpersonal element to it).

They have dialogue, and are in psychological contact with one another as well as with friends, colleagues, and others in the organisation (including management and HR). They are able to deal with any conflict as it arises, and able to give and take support and challenge.

A dispute may disturb the relationship.

Because of an incompatibility of goals, needs, priorities or interpretations of reality, dialogue breaks down, (In gestalt terms, they become out-of-contact). Each person (now each ‘side’) acquires their own faction or group of supporters, and collaboration becomes competition. They see the other as malevolent and threatening (by a process of ‘projection’). They develop a negative expectation of each other (called a ‘fixed gestalt’), which means that the other person’s words and actions, however innocuous, serve to confirm each party’s highly critical view of them.

The dispute then deepens.

The parties, actually and metaphorically, turn away from each other (Gestalt term: deflection). They hold on to things that they really feel like saying (Gestalt: retroflection), and instead engage with their own factions. A wall develops.

Restoration of contact through mediation

The role of a mediator who focusses on the interpersonal dimension of the conflict could be seen as that of a contact-broker.

The mediator’s intervention begins with setting up a safe container. The safety is engendered by an agreement of confidentiality, an understanding of mediator impartiality, and the parties’ voluntary participation. The containment is established with a clearly-contracted understanding of the role and purpose of mediation, and with a temporary insulation of the parties from the rest of the organisation. The initial aim is that the parties would feel safe to turn towards each other and towards their conflict (stopping the deflection), and start to say the important, if difficult, things that need to be said (undoing retroflections).

In initial private sessions with each party, the mediator uses their skills to build one-to-one dialogue with each party separately, after which the joint session is convened.

In the joint session, the wall between the parties (the ‘contact boundary’ in gestalt terms) starts to dissolve as the mediator builds dialogue and supports the assertive expression of each party’s thoughts, feelings and wishes. Parties start to see one another more clearly for who they really are (i.e. they withdraw projections), and also start to see the relationship as something that is worthy of restoration.

At the successful conclusion of mediation, dialogue is rebuilt and psychological contact is restored.

The mediator has attended to each of the interruptions to contact (deflection as turning away from the conflict, retroflection as holding on to important truths, and projection as negatively presupposing another’s thoughts and feelings). The mediator has built dialogue, firstly between his/herself and each party, and then between the two parties. The parties return to something like the initial healthy relationship, albeit they are changed by having been involved in conflict, and having taken part in the mediation process.

So this is how mediation ‘works’?

My own view, as a gestalt psychotherapist-turned-mediator, is that the field of mediation is far too concentrated on process, and lacks sufficient theory (for ‘theory’ read ‘explanation’) of how mediation usually works and sometimes doesn’t.

The analysis here is a very potted version of what I have called the ‘Relational-gestalt theory’ of mediation (the full version also considers shame, resistance, and other aspects of being involved in conflict), and for me it provides a much-needed insight into what happens at the inter- and intra-psychic level when conflict develops, deepens, and ultimately is resolved.

Almost every dispute, whether it is commercial, neighbourhood, workplace, or intra-family, has an interpersonal dimension. The parties have to some degree gone out-of-contact, and their dialogue has broken down.

If we see the mediator’s role as that of a contact-broker and a restorer of dialogue, it allows a much clearer rationale for why mediators do what they do, what is going on when mediation goes right, and what may have happened if mediation fails. And this relational-gestalt approach thereby provides a way (not the only way I am sure: let’s hear others) to explain how the process works.

Watch our webinar to discover more!

Our webinar on ‘The Psychology of Conflict’ looks at these themes in greater detail and includes a Q&A session with those who joined us live. You can watch the recorded webinar here.

Incidentally, there are lots more interesting webinar topics to come in the months ahead. Find out more here.


Dr Mike Talbot is CEO & Founder of UK Mediation,
leading mediator, trainer, speaker and consultant
More about Mike



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