As a long time mediator and restorative practitioner,
I’ve wrestled with the surprisingly nuanced relationship between mediation and more formal restorative
practices like conferencing. The fact that even practitioners don’t agree on how to define restorative
practices doesn’t make it any easier.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this ambiguity is their differing requirements for participation,
particularly as regards personal accountability. Simply
put: Restorative practitioners set a much higher bar—
they ask much more of people—before enabling them
to participate in restorative conferences.
In mediation, the requirements for participation are
minimal: If you are willing to try it, and if you agree to
follow a few ground rules, then you are “in.” Significantly, parties to mediation often accept little or no
responsibility for their contribution to the conflict prior
to the mediation session. Quite the contrary: they typically blame the other party or parties!
Parties start with pointing fingers. During the course
of the mediation, they may come to understand that
the situation is more complex than they had previously
thought. And in the end, many parties do take responsibility for the ways they have harmed each other.
By contrast, many restorative processes can't
even begin unless an offending party (or parties) has
taken responsibility for the harm they have caused.
Before restorative practices are even contemplated,
an "authority" (for example, a school administrator, a
judge) has typically intervened and made it clear to the
offending party that their actions were unacceptable.
Extensive preparatory work is also done with both tar-gets/victims and aggressors/offenders to determine
whether a restorative process is viable.
And the bar is still higher. Not only do offending par-
ties have to take responsibility for their actions, they
also have to demonstrate that they are genuinely
interested in repairing the harm that they have caused.
If they are not, then restorative practices aren't appro-
In one sense, restorative practices begin where
mediation ideally ends. A mediation session can be
a long and sometimes arduous process of discussion and discovery through which parties may accept
responsibility for their part in a conflict. But this
"place", where individuals who have harmed others
accept responsibility for their actions—this is where
The differing standards for participation arise from
the focus of each process:
Mediators help people resolve conflict. Their pro-
cess enables disputants to see whether, by working
together, they can get more of what they want than
by fighting, avoiding, intimidating, etc. Often they can.
Restorative practitioners, on the other hand, help
people repair harm. Their processes enable those
who were harmed to meet their needs, "offenders"
to appreciate the impact of their behavior and repair
the harm they have caused, and communities to be
This explains why mediation is usually not an appropriate process to address incidents where there is a
significant imbalance of power and/or responsibility
for a conflict—think sexual harassment, school bullying—whereas some restorative practices certainly
can be. This also explains why experienced mediators
need to make adjustments when working with restorative practices. Since restorative practice requires
offenders to first accept responsibility for their actions,
the mediator is no longer impartial or, as some authors
prefer, omnipartial. As Howard Zehr says, “The needs
of the victim…are the starting points of justice”.
In the language of transformative practice, the purpose of a restorative meeting is primarily to empower
the victim and to lead the offender not only to recognize their responsibility, but also to explore it deeply.
This is not to say that the process is adversarial. Many
offenders achieve insight into themselves and are the
better for the experience.
Both processes are powerful. Both can be profoundly
beneficial to participants. But they do have different
goals. Understanding their differences, and knowing
when to use each, is key to using them successfully.
One Difference Between Mediation
and Restorative Conferencing
About the Author
is the Founder of
Great Pond Resolutions, has worked
as a mediator,
trainer for three
decades. In 2015
he was selected by
the US State Department as a Fulbright
Specialist in conflict
Restorative practitioners set a much
higher bar—they ask much more of
people—before enabling them to
participate in restorative conferences.