Making the Implicit Explicit: Lessons for Mediators and Negotiators from Outside the DR World

One of the most exciting aspects, for me, of the May 26th CLE Dispute Resolution conference is its inclusion of speakers from a wide variety of practices beyond traditional mediation and negotiation practice. In speaking with these presenters, I have been struck by the resonance of one particular theme throughout so many different sessions – the notion that conflict resolution, theatre, graphic facilitation, gaming, psychology, teaching and learning, and development of new tools and techniques for conflict resolution all involve a process of “making the implicit explicit.”

What do I mean by that phrase? As a former graduate student in Drama and Theatre Studies, I learned that term in the context of academic studies into the work of Augusto Boal and other theatre professionals focusing on tools for participatory democracy, and in learning about sociometry (a quantitative method for measuring social relationships) and sociodrama (a method of utilizing dramatic enactment and exercises to address social relationships, conflict and values). In these contexts, I learned theatre exercises designed to illuminate barriers to social change and to explore group dynamics in a visual and physical way rather than through intellectualized discussion. That these theatrical influences might have something to contribute to our understanding of mediation and negotiation has been a topic of considerable interest to me over the years, and I am excited to have the chance to introduce a few ideas from sociodrama, in particular, in the introductory session of the conference. I am even more excited, however, to see how these ideas play out across a wide range of presentations.

For most of us, it is readily apparent that interest-based mediation training is designed quite specifically to prepare the mediator to make the implicit in a conflict explicit to one or more parties in order to assist them in resolving their issues. Active listening skills such as paraphrasing and reframing are intended to name underlying values that may not be consciously recognized, let alone explicitly stated. We learn that helping parties to state the values and interests that inform their decision-making shifts the discussion from positions and allows for party-driven problem-solving. Similarly, acknowledging emotions is a mediator’s tool that makes the implicit explicit and often allows individuals to feel better understood and supported in the process of conflictual discussions. Drawing on other practices that aim for the same result – explicating individual interests, group dynamics, emotions and barriers – seems like a natural way to broaden our skill set as mediators or negotiators as well as to re-examine our tried and true techniques to see if they might benefit from reflection through an alternative lens.

In speaking with our other presenters, I have realized how deeply this idea of making the implicit explicit infuses other sessions, too. Perhaps I would not have identified this theme if I were not already thinking about my own session, but with that frame of reference in mind, it is extraordinary how many of our sessions provide new ways to make explicit the implicit understandings and norms of our practices. Some sessions that leap out to me as building on this specific role of the conflict resolution professional are:

  • Keynote speaker Cinnie Noble’s sessions on conflict management coaching which draw on her brilliant work in assisting individuals to understand their own approaches to conflict and to become much more conscious of the choices they make in conflict;
  • Kyra Hudson’s and Jim Sibley’s session on Collaboration in Competitive Culture which allows us to explore the ways in which we learn teamwork and to understand why it so often fails and what is required in order to make it work effectively (making explicit the actual workings of team work!);
  • Carrie Gallant’s and Bettina Rothe’s exploration of Embodied Leadership and its reliance on understanding more explicitly how our brain and body work together in the communication process; and,
  • Kari Boyle’s and Sterling Nelson’s panel exploration of generational trends in mediation development in BC and the use of quantitative research to extrapolate patterns that may guide us in the ongoing development of this practice.

All of our other sessions also push us to be explicit about our understandings of dispute resolution and to explore our reasons for the assumptions we make about the practice and about our approaches. As a consequence, I am looking forward to the wrap-up session and wine and cheese social much more than I usually do as opportunities to hear from participants about insights they may have gained simply because throughout the day they have been encouraged to make the implicit aspects of our work explicit.


Sharon SutherlandSharon Sutherland is currently an Assistant Professor at UBC Faculty of Law, and is also a mediator and conflict resolution trainer. She has been a leader in the design and development of collaborative decision-making processes and training programs in BC. Amongst her contributions to the field of mediation, Sharon was one of the original Program Managers of the Court Mediation Program, designer and Manager of Development of the Child Protection Mediation Practicum and a founding member of CoRe Conflict Resolution Society. In recognition of her contributions to the field, in 2011 Sharon was awarded Mediate BC’s Susanna Jani Award for Excellence in Mediation.

Sharon will be leaving UBC this summer, after 14 years of teaching, in order to pursue a wide range of interests in dispute resolution including:
• Increased mediation practice
• Development of “impasse breaking” tools for collaborative decision-making
• Collaborative games development
• Online dispute resolution across a variety of platforms and practice areas

Sharon blogs about impasse breaking and creativity for mediators at and is Vice President and Speaker Series coordinator for CoRe Conflict Resolution Society. Sharon is hosting a Game Jam on May 9-11 at UBC.