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The Magic in Mediation: How to Find, Feed, and Foment It

Updated: Aug 1, 2023

By Kenneth Cloke, Mediator, dialogue facilitator, conflict resolution systems designer, teacher, public speaker

for the series by Mediator Vikram in relation to his Dispute Resolution Revolution.

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” 
- William Butler Yeats

Anyone who has mediated even a few disputes is likely to have experienced the magic of mediation, and would very much like to do so again.  But if asked where this magic came from, how it happened, what it consisted of, and how they might replicate it, most would be hard-pressed to answer. 

These unanswered questions, of course, form part of what makes any experience seem magical.  Yet they are also the beginning of all arts and sciences.  If we want to explore the magic in mediation more deeply canceling or explain the “fuzzy logic” that turns conflict into resolution, or consciously replicate these moving experiences, we need to unfold, unpack, dissect, and demystify the “miracles” of resolution we experience in mediation, without cancelling, mangling, or eviscerating them in the process. 

By magic, I do not mean illusion, trickery, sleight-of-hand, or superstition; but the very real, unpredictable metamorphosis of impasse into resolution.  Nor do I mean fantasy, mysticism, or “spooky action at a distance,” but real laws of motion that are subtle, camouflaged, largely unexamined, and implicit in the nature of conflict and the methodology of resolution. 

By magic, I mean something inexact, probabilistic, meaningful, even poetic; something with hidden variables, something so sensitively dependent on changing conditions that it can quickly turn chaotic, unpredictable, and irreplicable.  However we define magic, it requires a mixture of just the right ingredients, in just the right way, at just the right time, in just the right circumstances, with just the right people, and it can disappear without warning when these are not in exactly the right ratio.  

In mediation, the ingredients are subtle, complex, hidden, camouflaged, denied, multi-dimensional, intensely emotional, and constantly changing, so that the very same techniques that result in agreement at one moment may end in impasse at another only moments later.  A single word or gesture, if handled correctly, can lead to a breakthrough, and if not, can trigger aggression, aggravate tensions, prompt denial, and end in intractability.

For this reason, nothing in conflict resolution works always, everywhere, or for everyone – and also for this reason, everything in mediation is imbued with magical possibilities.  What we, therefore, need to do, is figure out what it consists of, where it comes from, how to release it, and gradually get better at finding, feeding, and fomenting it. 

Some Sources of Magic in Mediation

In reflecting on the sources of what we regard as magical, mystifying, and miraculous in mediation, we want to ask: “What is it specifically that gives rise to magic in mediation?” And as a follow-up question: “What can we actually do as mediators to invite this magic into ordinary conflict conversations?”

In response, based on my experience mediating thousands of disputes over more than four decades, it is possible for all mediators to identify the potential causes, explanations, and “sources” of magic that are unique to each dispute, each set of parties, and each mediator.  As a result, there are hundreds of possible sources of magic in every conflict.  Here is a list of my top 15 [For more on each, see my forthcoming book, The Magic in Mediation]:

  • A shift in awareness, attitude, emotion, thought, or intention

  • A fresh insight, realization, unanswered question, or imaginative leap

  • An added dimension, duality, or degree of freedom

  • A change in process, relationship, shape, or form -- i.e., a “transformation”

  • A new, innovative, or advanced technology

  • A higher-order technique, skill, aptitude, or capacity

  • An emergent phenomenon, arising out of chaos or complexity

  • A new symmetry, synthesis, or combination of existing ingredients

  • A recognition of hidden sources, connections, or meanings

  • An evolution or adaptation to new environmental conditions

  • A revolution, paradigm shift, systemic change, or phase transition

  • A discovery of integration, balance, poise, authenticity, integrity, or center

  • A completion, transcendence, rising above, or deep learning

  • An increase in love, caring, or kindness

  • A metamorphosis of experience and heart knowledge into wisdom

Each of these sources can be considered scientifically, to identify more precisely how it operates; and artistically, to apply it creatively to an immense variety of conflicts between diverse individuals in unique circumstances, under rapidly changing conditions, in an effort to achieve something that is not only different, but unimaginable just moments before it occurs. 

If we define conflict as a state of being stuck, or at an impasse, then by definition, it is nearly impossible for anyone inside a conflict to imagine how it might be possible to become unstuck, and outside it.  To them, the conflict feels intractable, confining, static, and hopeless, leading those in its’ frozen grip to slip into frustration, aggravation, and negative thinking – not just about each other, but about themselves for being stuck, and about the hope of ever becoming unstuck. 

The first “miracle,” or source of magic, that can take place in any conflict is the resurrection of hope, which is often triggered by the mediation itself, simply by the arrival of the mediator – i.e., of someone outside the conflict, and therefore able to escape its hypnotic, circular, adversarial, hopeless assumptions; yet also inside the conflict, and therefore able to use empathetic listening, reframing, and similar skills to unravel its deeper causes; and simultaneously able to see around the conflict, and identify the subtle effects of systems, cultures, histories, biases, contexts, environments, and similar sources of conflict that may have passed unnoticed, merely because they are so pervasive, or subtle, or taken for granted.

A second miracle in mediation can occur when the parties recognize that their conflict is merely a place where they are stuck over the same issue -- perhaps because they were emotionally triggered by each other’s defensive or adversarial actions; or because they lack the skills they need to respond successfully to each other’s behaviors; or because there are two or more truths and they each assume there is only one, which is theirs.

A mediator may then evoke a third, deeper, more subtle, and simple yet profound miracle, merely by helping each person calm their emotions, or by modeling mediative skills, or by drawing their disparate truths into conversation or dialogue with each other.  A mediator can help them explore the nuances and subtleties of their respective experiences; surface their deeper interests; search for syntheses and creative combinations; empower their diversity and dissent; or suggest novel approaches and collaborative solutions. 

Even in the most intractable and emotionally intense conflicts, a mediator can sometimes deepen this miracle in a fourth way by revealing -- perhaps through questions, facilitated dialogue, or practical proposals for resolution -- how their conflict can be transformed into opportunities for learning, growth, and improvement; into openings into insight, awareness, and empathy; or into pathways to wisdom, heart-knowledge, and transcendence. 

Beyond these “ordinary” miracles, we can use any of the 15 sources of magic to more deeply understand how these magical outcomes occur, bring to the surface all the unspoken, unexplored, underlying elements, components, and characteristics that invisibly define the conflict; and shift the ways people think, feel, and respond to the issues, each other, and themselves that keep them locked in conflict, orbiting around each other, and unable to escape.

For example, people in conflict often ascribe very different meanings to the same events, communications, and behaviors -- based both on their conflict-driven perceptions and experiences, and on the fluctuating state of their awareness, attitudes, emotions, thoughts, and intentions.  Any significant shift in either party’s awareness, attitudes, emotions, thoughts, and intentions can fundamentally alter the form of their conflict, either by triggering, sustaining, or escalating it; or seemingly by magic, unlocking it at its hidden source. 

While much of our focus as mediators is on the substantive issues that divide people, most of what transpires in conflict is a product of the parties’ attitudes and intentions. 

If their attitudes and intentions are negative and hostile, intransigence and resistance will make the issues appear more important and less amenable to solution, whereas if they are positive and constructive, the issues will cease being obstacles and instead become gateways to synergistic, higher order outcomes.

As mediators, we therefore want to consider the means and methods we might use to reach conflicted parties – not merely at the relatively superficial level of the issues they are fighting over -- but at the far deeper level of the meanings they attach to them; that is, at the level of their choice of a state of awareness, attitude, emotion, thought, or intention in relation to their conflict.  These choices can be seen as options leading to fundamentally different outcomes, allowing mediators to design interventions around what I think of as “pivot points,” or locations where conversations and conflicts can quickly shift or turn. 

There are a number of points or places where conflicts can pivot, change direction, and assume a fundamentally different form.   In ordinary mediations, it is possible to find pivot points that often take the form of “dangerous” questions that shift people’s focus from the misdeeds of others to ourselves and what we might have done better; or from the past to the present or future; or from accusatory stories to underlying emotions, emotions to interests, interests to problem solving, and problem solving to negotiations.

The real difficulties lie first, in identifying the "work" that is needed to complete each task in navigating our way through the conflict; second, in knowing when that work is done; and third, in designing transitional questions that help draw attention away from the past and the work that is now complete to the next task that is waiting to be finished in a specific order. 

In doing so, it is helpful to identify the stages, steps, phases, decision gates, and boxes that need to be checked in order to move through the process -- and if we try to move from one step to the next without finishing the work of the first, we are likely to be drawn back to those prior tasks until we complete them. 

For example, people in conflict commonly interlace their communications with negative, indirect, emotionally laden accusations, exaggerations, power words, metaphors, gestures, signs, and signals, which indicate: first, that they are experiencing intense negative emotions; and second, that they do not feel entirely comfortable or skillful expressing them directly or constructively to the other person. 

These uncommunicated, indirect, negative emotions are then sublimated, distilled, distorted, and repressed, leaving tiny traces, even in the words and phrases, tones of voice, body language, subtle signs, and semiotic indicators, that indirectly reveal their hidden meaning.  

Beneath these distrustful, strangled, and distorted emotional defenses lie desires for open, trusting, wholehearted, honest communications; unspoken requests for respect, recognition, and acknowledgment; requests for forgiveness; and cries for help in re-orienting their conversations to constructive, collaborative efforts to satisfying their mutual interests.  Together, these can be interpreted by mediators as unspoken invitations and implicit permission to intervene, dig deeper, and get their communications back on track. 

As mediators, we may, for example, ask questions that make the parties’ emotional states explicit (“How does this conversation feel to you right now?”  “What could the other person do or say to make it feel more constructive?”).  Or, we may invite people to express their deeper desires (“What words would you use to describe the kind of relationship or communication you most want to have with each other?” “What is one thing you would like him to acknowledge or thank you for?” “Are you willing to do that right now?”).  Or, we may identify ways the parties can shift their conflict dynamics (“Is this conversation working?”  “What is one thing she could do or say that would make it work better for you?”  “Are you willing to do that?”).

Any of these interventions or questions, and thousands like them, can create significant shifts in both parties’ awareness, attitudes, emotions, thoughts, and intentions, and in doing so, fundamentally transform the dynamics between them, resolve the issues that are invisibly driving the dispute, and alter the course of their conflict as though by magic. 

Mediators in any conflict can also design and ask difficult, dangerous, complex, and paradoxical questions that might elicit some fresh insight or realization in the minds of the parties; or surface and address some unasked or unanswered question; or trigger an imaginative leap in some brand-new direction, and unlock the conflict in an unanticipated, unpredictable way. 

There are two primary reasons for asking questions in mediation: first, to find answers; and second, to reveal deeper questions, which may themselves be partly answers, and lead to still deeper questions and answers – questions not merely about what the parties think, but who they are, or want to be; questions that they answer with their lives.  In my experience, there are two deep, transformational goals in conflict resolution that can be advanced by asking poignant and profound questions:

Aiding people in gaining insight into the sources of their conflict and the reasons why they are stuck, thereby revealing a path, or multiple paths, forward; and

Aiding people in gaining perspective on themselves, their opponents, and their issues, thereby strengthening their empathy and humility, recalibrating their attitudes and intentions, surfacing their unsatisfied interests, and redefining their problem – not as a “you,” or a “them,” but as an “it” and a “we.”

In addition, there are three fundamental categories of questions we can ask: 

Questions based on power, resulting in answers that indirectly reinforce:
- Obedience
- Loyalty or acceptance of ranking
- Dominance in hierarchy and status 

A simple example might be: “Who is the oldest or tallest person in the group?”, which produce a single correct answer for everyone. 

Questions based on rights, resulting in answers that indirectly reinforce:
- Compliance with abstract rules and regulations
- Bureaucratic forms and processes
- Single, uniform, objective facts

A simple example might be: “How old/tall are you?”, which produce that seek a single correct answer for each person.

Questions based on interests, resulting in answers that indirectly reinforce:
- Unique personal wishes and desires
- Complex emotions
- Multiple, diverse, subjective truths

A simple example might be: “What issues are you facing at whatever age you are at?” “What does your height mean to you?”  “What did it mean to you growing up?”  These questions produce multiple correct answers for each person. 

While “magic,” in the sense of unexpected answers or fresh insights, is unlikely to occur in response to the questions listed in categories 1 and 2, they are far more likely to arise in response to questions in category 3, as these evoke reflection and invite insight.  There are countless questions like this that can fundamentally alter the course of a conflict.  Consider, for example, what could happen in response to these:

  • What question, if it were answered, would mean the most to you right now? 

  • What does the other person’s response mean to you?  What is important to you about it?  Why does it matter?

  • What draws you to this issue?  What is your history with it?

  • What is your intention or deeper purpose in this conflict?

  • What opportunities do you see in this conversation? 

  • What dilemmas or dangers do you see in it?

  • What assumptions do you need to test or challenge in addressing it?

  • What do you know about it so far?  What do you not know, and still need to learn

  • What do you think may lie beneath the opinions you have about it, or about each other?

  • What is at the center of this issue for you?

  • What has surprised you in what you have heard so far? What has challenged you? 

  • What is absent or missing from the picture so far? What is it you are not seeing?  What do you need more clarity about?

  • What has been your greatest learning, insight, or discovery so far?

  • What is the next level of thinking you need to get to in order to solve it?

  • If there is one thing that hasn’t yet been said, but needs to be said in order to reach a solution, what would that be?

  • What would it take to improve the way you are communicating with each other, or addressing this issue?

  • What do you imagine each of you might be

  • able to do to solve it?

  • What could I or others do that would enable you to feel more engaged or energized or effective in solving it?

  • What most needs your attention right now, or going forward?

  • If your success were completely guaranteed, what bold steps might you be willing to take?What support do you need in order to move forward?

  • What unique contribution can you make to the solution? 

  • What challenges do you face, and how might you meet them?

  • What conversation, if you started it today, could ripple out and create new possibilities for your future?

  • What seed might you plant together that could make the greatest difference to your future?

  • What question could you ask each other that might change everything?

  • What question would you most like to be asked right now? 

  • What question have you been waiting for? What question do you wish, or pine for?

  • What question do you, or they, most want not to be asked?

  • What question, if it were asked right now, could take your breath away, or drop you to your knees?

  • What question have you always wanted to ask him/her, but were reluctant to do so?

  • What question could either of you ask that, if answered, could reveal that you are wrong about what you think about each other or the issue?

  • What question have you been withholding or hoarding?  Why?

  • What question will you wish that you had asked today, or be most disappointed if you don’t ask?

  • What kind of person would you most like to be in this conflict?  What values or higher qualities would you most like to bring to this conversation?

  • What questions might you ask that would allow you to be and do that?

These questions encourage people to reflect on how their conflicts may have trapped or confined them to ways of thinking, feeling, and being that have kept them stuck and blocked their capacity for learning and growth, and this realization has magic in it. 

There are, of course, far more sources of magic in mediation.  And since magic is subtle and sensitively dependent on existing conditions, it will never succeed always, everywhere, or for everyone.

Magic is an activity, a process that inevitably begins with a search, which turns into a succession of failures and recoveries, until suddenly, somehow, something works – usually for reasons we do not fully understand, and therefore experience as magical.  Magic is also a kind of immediacy, a quality of presence, which can be found in language – not in the sense of the external objects it is used to describe, but in the artistry, poignancy, and mediative quality of language itself. 

Every mediation begins with the most magical assumption of all – that somehow, against all odds and expectations, we will be able bring people together who are completely stuck in their conflicts; who are experiencing intense feelings of hatred, fear, distrust, frustration, hopelessness, and desperation; who have been traumatized repeatedly and failed to resolve their differences.  Yet we believe we can somehow help them discover or invent a way out, without even the slightest inkling of where or how this will occur.  The idea that this might be possible is an extraordinary leap of faith, yet it is one that routinely results in documented settlement rates of between 85 and 98%, with disputes that seem 100% stuck. 

The only way of explaining these results is by suggesting that there is both a science and an art that lie hidden beneath the surface, creating an impression of magic, because we do not fully understand them.  Yet despite this lack of complete understanding, either of the sources of conflict or the methods of resolution, the magic happens -- not only because of what we do, but of who we are; and the strength of our commitment.  

Magic happens in spite of everything people have said and done to each other; in spite of their belief and determination that it will not happen; despite all their anguish and pain and trauma and loss, all their failed efforts and hopelessness.  Why?  Because we, their mediators, know, in our minds and hearts and bodies and souls, that magic is possible, and are ready, in every mediation, to step from that light and certainty into darkness and uncertainty, and search for it there. 

In doing so, we allow ourselves, for a moment, to become the magic the parties are seeking, merely because they do not yet understand that the magic is already there waiting for them.  The greatest magic of all is their discovery that the magic is not in the inside and between them; that each of them can become magicians; alchemists who discover how to transform the lead of conflict into the gold of resolution.  

This article is drawn from, The Magic in Mediation, to be published in Fall, 2023.


About the Author

Ken Cloke is a world-recognized Mediator, dialogue facilitator, conflict resolution systems designer, teacher, public speaker,  author of numerous books and articles, and a pioneer and leader in the field of mediation and conflict resolution.

About the Series Editor

Mediator Vikram (Vikram Singh), is a full-time Mediator & Peacemaker and a part-time golfer. He's a lawyer based in New Delhi, India and is promoting Mediation around the world for which he organises lots of shows & events. Recordings are available on his YouTube Channel. There are 575+ videos on his Channel which are an excellent resource on everything Mediation. He has created the World Mediation Circle which is a World Wide Web of Mediation Circles. World Mediation Circle will promote Mediation and develop a Culture of Mediation around the world so that Mediation becomes the preferred method of Dispute Resolution. Mediation Circles will bring a moral values, principles and ethics based humanistic approach to Dispute Resolution where Heart Soul Spirituality play an important role. A collaborative approach to Dispute Resolution has been used by families and communities including indigenous and business communities for time immemorial. We have to go back to our roots and move away from an adversarial approach. We have to break out of the colonial mindset towards dispute resolution. Please visit for more information about his activities for the promotion of Mediation.

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