Embracing trauma-informed mediation in conflict resolution

Embracing trauma-informed mediation in conflict resolution


Trauma-informed mediation is an approach that recognizes and integrates an understanding of trauma and its impacts into the mediation process. It acknowledges that individuals involved in a conflict may have experienced trauma, which can affect their ability to engage fully and effectively in mediation. Mediation that takes on a trauma-conscious approach takes into consideration the impact of trauma and incorporates this understanding into the mediation process. It honours the fact that those involved in a dispute may have gone through traumatic experiences, which can hinder their capacity to fully and actively participate. This method prioritizes establishing a secure and encouraging atmosphere, empowering those involved, and addressing the specific needs of trauma survivors. Its purpose is to guide participants through mediation while minimizing the risk of re-victimization trauma and promoting the potential for growth and resolution.

In a trauma-informed mediation practice, mediators receive training to develop an understanding of trauma and its effects on individuals. They learn to create a safe and non-threatening space where parties feel comfortable sharing their experiences and concerns. Mediators prioritize building rapport and trust, actively listen to parties’ stories, and validate their emotions and experiences. This approach helps to establish a foundation of safety and respect, which is essential for trauma survivors to feel empowered and engage in the mediation process.

Trauma-informed mediation involves adapting the mediation process to accommodate the specific needs of trauma survivors. Mediators may implement strategies to manage triggers or emotional distress during the mediation session, such as incorporating grounding techniques, providing breaks, or allowing for additional support persons to be present.

Shifting the lens: understanding trauma-informed mediation

Unlike conventional models, trauma-informed mediation doesn’t merely focus on resolving disputes; it prioritizes the well-being of all parties involved.

  • Trauma-informed mediation is a process of conflict resolution that takes into account the impact of trauma on the parties involved in the dispute.
  • Trauma-informed mediation recognizes that traumatic experiences can affect a person’s ability to communicate, make decisions, and participate in the mediation process.
  • Trauma-informed mediation seeks to create a safe and supportive environment for the parties, and to help them address the underlying causes of the conflict.


Core Principles of Trauma-Informed Mediation

To be effective, trauma-informed mediation requires a number of key strategies and practices:
■ Safety and security: Creating a safe environment is paramount. This includes physical safety, as well as emotional security through empathy, respect, and understanding.
■ Empowerment and choice: Parties are empowered to maintain control of their participation and freely express themselves or pause without facing judgment. Mediators possess the skills to embrace an atmosphere that promotes trauma survivors in sharing their experiences, conveying their requirements, and engaging in decision-making. With a trauma-informed approach, mediation acknowledges and respects individuals’ autonomy and gives them the space to reclaim their voice and authority as they navigate the mediation journey.
■ Collaboration and mutual respect: The focus shifts from adversarial positions to collaborative problem-solving, fostering mutual understanding and appreciation for diverse perspectives.
■ Cultural awareness and responsiveness: Recognizing and respecting the cultural backgrounds and lived experiences of individuals can bridge gaps in communication and understanding. Trauma-informed mediation aligns with the principles of fairness, equity, and inclusivity. It recognizes that trauma can intersect with other forms of marginalization, such as race, gender, or socioeconomic status, and aims to address these intersecting factors to ensure equitable outcomes.
■ Holistic approach: Acknowledging the interconnectedness of emotional, physical, and cognitive impacts of trauma, and incorporating mindfulness practices and supportive resources when needed. Traditional mediation approaches may inadvertently trigger trauma responses or exacerbate distress for trauma survivors.

Adapting the process to trauma survivors

The trauma-informed mediator doesn’t approach each conflict with a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, they adapt their skills and techniques to meet the specific needs of each individual:

      • Pace and flexibility: Recognizing that trauma survivors may need more time and flexibility to process information and engage in dialogue.
      • Trigger recognition and management: Identifying potential triggers related to the conflict and creating strategies to de-escalate or avoid them altogether.
      • Communication style: Utilizing clear, concise, and non-judgmental language, avoiding legal jargon or accusatory phrasing.
      • Focus on emotions: Acknowledging and validating emotional responses without getting drawn into negativity, and supporting parties in self-regulation.
      • Non-linear progress: Accepting that the path to resolution might not be linear, and allowing for setbacks and pauses as needed.


Trauma-informed mediation in action (recognition, understanding, response and reduction)

Trauma informed mediation is based on four key concepts: recognition, understanding, response, and reduction.
Recognizing the presence of trauma in the parties involved in a dispute is crucial. It involves acknowledging the potential impact of past traumatic experiences, whether related to the conflict or not. Trauma can arise from a single incident, a series of events, or ongoing circumstances that are perceived as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening. It can have far-reaching effects on an individual’s well-being, spanning across various aspects such as mental, physical, social, emotional, and even spiritual realms.
To truly understand the influence of trauma on the parties, one must be able to identify its signs and symptoms. This includes recognizing how trauma can shape behavior, communication patterns, decision-making processes, and coping mechanisms. Trauma can manifest in a multitude of reactions, including fear, anger, guilt, shame, mistrust, avoidance, dissociation, hypervigilance, and more. Trauma can also impair the individual’s memory, concentration, logic, or rationality.
Response means integrating trauma informed strategies into the mediation process, such as establishing rapport, building trust, providing information, offering choices, respecting boundaries, validating emotions, acknowledging strengths, and facilitating empowerment. Trauma informed mediators also use appropriate techniques to manage triggers, de-escalate conflicts, and support the parties’ self-regulation and resilience.
Reduction means minimizing the potential for re-traumatization by avoiding creating an unnecessarily stressful or triggering environment for the parties. With a deep understanding of the potential for triggering responses, trauma informed mediators are attuned to the physical, emotional, and psychological safety of all parties. They are able to adapt the mediation setting, format, pace, and agenda as needed, prioritizing the well-being of the participants. Ultimately, incorporating trauma informed approaches into mediation allows for a more responsive and sensitive process for all involved.

Embracing the challenges, championing the hope

While trauma-informed mediation offers immense potential, navigating the complexities of trauma requires specialized training and ongoing ethical reflection for mediators. The challenges are real, demanding sensitivity, patience, and cultural competency. However, the rewards are far greater. By embracing this approach, we can illuminate the path towards healing within conflict, offering survivors a space to reclaim their voices, regain control, and rebuild trust, not just in others, but within themselves. Remember, conflict is inevitable, but the way we navigate it defines us.


Written by Eugene Opperman (B.Proc. LLB.) (LSSA L.E.A.D., ADR Network, FAMAC) , a legal practitioner at Oppermans Inc. and accredited mediator. 23 January 2024