Susan Harter and the inAccord Research

I am pleased to introduce myself to the readership as the Research Consultant and Coordinator for Mediators without Borders, where I have been serving in this capacity for 18 months, at the invitation of your president and CEO, Shauna Ries.  Much of what I will describe has been captured in our 2012 book, In Justice, inAccord.  However, I would like to structure this newsletter piece in the form of appropriate questions that you might have of me, our collaboration, and research mission and then respond with what I hope will be satisfying answers. 

 Question: Tell us about yourself,, what is your background and what are your credentials?

Answer: Briefly, I have had an extensive and productive research career, first at Yale University and then at the University of Denver, where I am a John Evans Professor in the Psychology Department. I have been the director of a graduate and post doctoral research training program, obtained many federally funded grants to support my research, and have published in the areas of emotion understanding, self-esteem, and motivation, across the life-span. Central to my credentials has been the development of a life-span battery of self-report surveys to assess perceptions in these different areas.

Question: Having taken this position, what are the collaborative goals and just what can you bring to Mediators without Borders, specifically?

 Answer:  At the invitation of Shauna Ries, President and CEO of Mediators without Borders, I was asked to spearhead an extensive research initiative to assess and evaluate the efficacy of Ries’ inAccord model of mediation. She was well aware that in this day and age it is not sufficient to merely proclaim or assert the benefits of an intervention. One must document it through appropriate methodologies and up-to-date statistical techniques, while making the research findings accessible and clear to professionals as well as lay persons interested in the efficacy of this particular model.

Thus, we have introduced self-report surveys into the various phases of the intervention process, to assess disputants’ perceptions of the key concepts that they must master, in order to bring them actively into the process. Upfront, there are two key components of the inAccord model, transparency and empowerment. Transparency addresses the fact that the content is as clear and understandable as possible. Empowerment invites people, in this case disputants, to play an active role, have a say, in resolving their conflict.

Question: Aren’t you concerned that the introduction of surveys would interfere with the mediation intervention itself, that it would distract or derail people from their concentration on the process?

Answer:  This is an excellent question and one that Shauna and I raised at the outset, over 18 months ago. Thus, in her own mediation efforts with clients as well as the training where mock disputants were instructed to play that role, Shauna carefully monitored the reactions to the surveys of disputants. Much to our delight, not only did the surveys NOT intrude upon the mediation process but, in contrast, they facilitated it!!  The surveys helped people clarify their emotions and to pinpoint the goals of the program (in the service of transparency); they alerted people to the skills they would be learning (fostering empowerment), and finally, after the intervention, gave the mediators (and us, as evaluators) feedback about whether disputants felt that the various aspects of the intervention were effective.

Question:  That sounds well and good in the abstract, I can see your point. But what has the research actually demonstrated in this research, that mediators and disputants find helpful, what are some concrete examples of your findings?

Answer:  I’m glad you asked because this is the bottom line. Plus, it allows us to share some of the exciting findings to emerge from the research we have conducted.  For this newsletter, let me comment on one very novel feature of our research that is not often acknowledged in mediation efforts: The role of emotions. Some well respected theorists (see Ries & Harter, 2012) have acknowledged the role of emotions but have not examined it directly, within a research paradigm. There has, until now, been more attention to logic and cognitive solutions, rather than a thoughtful consideration of emotions.

Ries, in her own work with mediation clients, has developed a conceptualization of two types of emotions, those that are empowering (happiness, optimism, hope) versus disempowering or debilitating emotions (such as anger, despair, depression, guilt). Her insights into the importance of identifying these emotions at the beginning of mediation has lead us to devise surveys to assess disputants’ own feelings of the emotions they bring to the table.

Question:  That is all very interesting, so what have your actual findings revealed in terms of your research?

Answer:  Well, the findings are quite compelling. Disputants willingly report their emotions around a dispute before the mediation intervention and then at the end of the process. The findings clearly reveal (and are both described and plotted in graphs in our book) that there is a dramatic increase in the empowering emotions as a result of mediation, as well as a dramatic decrease in the disempowering emotions. Mediators point this out to disputants which further empowers them to want to move forward to resolve their conflict. This is but one indicator of the effectiveness of this particular mediation model. In future newsletters we will share additional findings.

Question: This is obviously encouraging research and we look forward to more findings.  However, I thought that mediation was more of a subfield of law; but what you are looking at sounds very much aligned with psychology, sociology, social work and the mental health professions. You, as a psychologist, are at the helm of this research. Help me understand.

Answer:  You put your finger on a very important issue. Too often we polarize fields and disciplines, seeing them as supporting contradictory goals. Yet there are shared objectives, when it comes to conflicts and disputes. And there are different pathways toward resolving disputes, some of which are more time and cost-efficient than others.  These are important considerations given today’s economy. But there are many cases in which mediators, arbitrators, and lawyers work together toward a solution. Historically, mediation grew out of different traditions, and the mental health professions, for example, marriage and family therapy, were and still are very influential. Conflicts and disputes between people, as Ries points out, are inevitable and have a very profound psychological component. Psychology, as the study of human behavior, is intimately involved in unraveling the underlying bases of conflict and its resolution. Moreover, psychologists who have extensive research training are in a unique position to empirically examine these processes. That is our goal.

We will be expanding upon this thinking in future newsletters and books. We plan to adapt our research strategies as we expand into new ventures. This is a work in progress, and we respect your interest in our previous successes and how we plan to proceed. Feel free to write with additional questions that we can address in subsequent newsletters.

To justice, fairness, respect, and dignity in the resolution of conflicts.

Dr. Susan Harter
John Evans Professor, University of Denver