Mediation Culture for Conflict Transformation

EDITORIAL, 30 Oct 2017

#505 | Johan Galtung – TRANSCEND Media Service

I Congreso Internacional Inclusion y Mejora Educativa – Alcalá, Spain 25 Oct 2017

Four important concepts: mediation, culture, conflict, transformation. What do they stand for and how do they relate to each other?

“Mediation” stands for efforts to understand all parties, helping them to understand themselves and to understand each other. There is a “culture” of mediation about whether or not to propose solutions.

“Conflict” stands for incompatible goals, meaning something that can possibly be solved by making the goals compatible. It is not, NOT, another word for violence. Those who believe it is, lose a key way out: solving the conflict. A major point that cannot be repeated enough. Conflict is not violence—and vice versa.

“Transformation” is a more modest version of conflict solution: changing the conflict to something the parties can handle themselves without violence or threats. Not solved, but something they can live with; like diseases that have become chronic and must be tolerated.

We can safely say that there is a classical mediation culture. The basic point is to work with the parties, singly or combined, to get them to moderate their goals. There is a guiding light in that mediation culture: compromise.  If both or all yield a little, some maybe much, we can arrive at a deal.  They can also arrive at this deal without a mediator; the process is then called negotiation.

A compromise is not necessarily 50-50. Symmetric, but somehow adjusted to the power in the sense of force of the parties. “I refrain from force, but remember, I could have gotten all, and you nothing”.

This culture is also internalized by the parties to mediation. “Good at compromising” is a compliment; the party-person is reasonable and does not press the point unnecessarily but accommodates to others.

Is this not a rather reasonable mediation sense, culture?  It is, people should know it and enact it. And yet we call it the “classical mediation culture”, opening for a more “innovative mediation culture”.        This classical mediation culture suffers from serious deficits. That “compromise” leaves everybody both satisfied and dissatisfied, thus unstable. But more serious is the failure to respond to the basic challenge; Toynbee’s criterion of viability.

The challenge is a conflict, with shouts for a solution falling on deaf ears because “conflict” is not seen as something solvable. Conflict is seen as “trouble” that can be softened if the parties do not go for “I win, you lose”, but for a compromise.

“Half-half” by compromise is better than “win-lose” by violence, but not good enough. We should be less modest, aiming at “win-win”.

Again we come back to the same basic point: what is a “conflict”? From Latin “confligrare“, shocking against each other, is compatible with seeing conflict as violence, shocking, indeed, of the parties.  There is nothing wrong in that classical view.  But instead of seeing the parties as shocking we can choose to see their goals as shocking. The word for that is not violence but incompatibility, contradiction.  And that opens for another way out: make the goals compatible.

What does “incompatibility” mean exactly?  It means that in reality, in empirical reality, we cannot have both this goal and that goal, they exclude each other.  Right here comes the innovative point: how about changing that empirical reality, rather than the goals?

We are doing it all the time. It is called engineering. We want to connect two valleys separated by high mountains? Dig a tunnel. We want more land?  Build a dike, pump out the water. We want two nations to coexist peacefully in the same state? Be innovative, change social empirical reality. Make the state a federation for two nations with as much autonomy as they want, yet with something they share, a “state”.

Social engineering but based on dialogue with all the parties.

Our argument favors an innovative mediation culture aiming at changing reality more than the parties. If their goals are legitimate. What does that mean?

  1. “Legal” is one point.
  2. “Compatible with human rights” is another, even if they are not (yet) the law of the land.
  3. “Compatible with basic human needs” even if not yet recognized as human rights (needs for sleep, sex life, births, for instance) is a third.

All demanding much dialogue and searching, trial and error, new ways.

Look at human history. Much trial, much error, much innovation. Innovation was driven by goals, sometimes shared, sometimes divisive. Humans have wanted a lot and continue wanting, sometimes inventing the technology for the desirable to make it possible, sometimes steered by technology because it is possible. Making humans technology slaves.

We argue for a mediation culture respecting all legitimate goals carried by parties, however modest, not only those of the “leaders”. How is that possible? By listening to understand their visions of desirable marriages, life styles, societies, worlds, checking the legitimacy of what they want, and then trying to bridge legitimate goal by being creative, introducing something new in social reality.

In other words, rather than trying to adjust the goals of the parties to a reality seen as basically unchangeable, adjust that reality to the goals of the parties.  For the mediator: rather than being persuasive for the parties to moderate their goals, try being creative in meeting their goals.  And democratically: everybody’s goals.

We are entitled to want but not at the expense of others’ wants; meaning: conflict and search for creative solutions. If we are driven by legitimate goals, then we must create realities accommodating them at the micro, meso, macro, mega levels of our human construction.

Objection: classical mediation may have changed too little but innovative mediation may change too much! Possibly; that means that stability, non-change, becomes a goal. Also to be taken seriously.

A new mediation culture is needed. For more and better conflict transformation by changing empirical reality, not being its slaves.


Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies, dr hc mult, is founder of TRANSCEND International and rector of TRANSCEND Peace University. Prof. Galtung has published more than 1500 articles and book chapters, 500 Editorials for TRANSCEND Media Service, and more than 170 books on peace and related issues, of which more than 40 have been translated to other languages, including 50 Years100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives published by TRANSCEND University Press. More information about Prof. Galtung and all of his publications can be found at

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 30 Oct 2017.

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