The Unreliable Narrator?

Negotiation Journal, Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School
July 2011

Patrick Field's Review Essay, "The Unreliable Narrator?" is a critical examination of John Forester's 2009 book, Dealing with Differences: Dramas of Mediating Public Disputes. The book focuses on several different mediators working on multiparty, public sector disputes and in narrative form, tells the mediators' stories of intervening in protracted, painful public disputes.

Field writes that Dealing with Differences is an engaging read that deepens our understanding of the public dispute mediator's craft and the complexity public disputes.

However, Field questions whether mediators are the most reliable narrators of the complete story. Forester's book views public disputes through the mediators' eyes and Field wonders about the “missing narrative”: what the parties were thinking and doing during these disputes; and what about their own actions and attitudes they believed moved the process forward. Field argues that mediators are too often the central character in books and articles about the field, and suggests that a narrative analysis that examines and compares participant experiences, as well as the mediator's, would offer invaluable insights to practitioners.

Field points to another missing narrative in Forester's book: stories of failed mediations. Field worries that without the thoughtful telling and examination of mediations gone awry, practitioners can become overconfident that they can always “march into the most difficult settings and make a difference.”

Field also discusses the larger forces that shape, constrain, and influence public sector disputes: timing, exogenous factors, and institutional structures. He feels that consideration of these outside forces would have added value to the book since they often determine the success or failure of mediations.

Although Dealing with Differences may not have covered entirely new territory, Field concludes that Forester’s book thoroughly deepens our understanding of the public dispute mediator’s craft and how mediators view their roles, tools, and actions.

Read Patrick Field’s complete essay, “The Unreliable Narrator?”. 

For more information, contact Patrick Field.