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Community Conferencing as a method of Transformative Mediation

An introduction to the work of TJA

Transformative Justice Australia (TJA) was formed in 1995 by a group of colleagues whose work experience ranged from social research and public administration, through school and university education, to small business and commercial and industrial law. In these diverse settings we had recognised a common need to develop more constructive responses to conflict.

There are many processes for dealing with conflict. Almost all of them fall into one of three categories. Conflict can be amplified. It can be ignored or avoided. Or it can be transformed. There is a time and a place for all of these approaches.

For instance, courts amplify conflict in their search for "the truth of the matter". When a person is accused of some wrongdoing, and when they dispute that accusation, then claims of innocence conflict with claims of guilt. The courts provide a forum to test those conflicting claims against each other. The adjudication of the courts provides an important safeguard of liberty and justice.

Yet amplification is not always the most appropriate approach to conflict. It can leave lingering feelings of anger and fear. It can further erode trust and respect in the community of people affected. In response to these concerns, the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) movement has, over several decades, developed formal alternatives to conflict amplification in the courts.


The best known of these alternatives is mediation. A key rationale for mediation is that amplifying conflict often produces a lose-lose or at best a lose-win outcome, when a win-win outcome might otherwise have been possible. A mediator can help disputants achieve that optimal, win-win outcome. Successful mediation encourages people to determine their interests rationally. Avoiding conflict when resolving a dispute is an important part of their approach, and it works very well in many circumstances. Turning down the emotional intensity of the encounter helps disputants in "getting to yes". If a conflict is a symptom of some specific dispute, much of the conflict should dissipate when the dispute itself is resolved.

And yet there are circumstances in which there is clearly conflict, but the actual nature of any related disputes is unclear. There are other circumstances in which a legacy of low morale and unresolved tensions remains after past disputes have been dealt with inappropriately - by amplifying or avoiding the conflict. And there are circumstances where there appears to be no specific dispute between parties in conflict. They just appear to be in conflict. In any of these situations - which are quite common in workplaces - it is unhelpful to amplify the level of conflict. But nor is it optimal to avoid or ignore the conflict. Instead, a process is required to transform the conflict.


TJA's original work in this area of conflict transformation involved a process we call the community conference. Used in schools and the justice system, the community conference brings together the community of people affected by harmful behaviour. Those responsible for the harmful behaviour, accompanied by their supporters - family and friends - are brought together with the victims of that behaviour and their supporters. In a structured sequence, participants consider the damage that has been done. They then consider possible constructive responses.

The Australian pilot program of community conferencing (which ran from 1991 - 1995 in the Riverina) showed a halving of re-offending (compared to other interventions); participant (= perpetrator(s) & victim(s) & their respective supporters) satisfaction rates of well over 90%; and a general increase in social support in the affected community. These outstanding results have since been replicated in Canberra (in a $multi-million, random assignment trial), various smaller programs across Canada, and most recently in Pennsylvania. The community conferencing programs in schools are significantly reducing rates of suspension and exclusion.

In Australia, North America and also now Western Europe, TJA has been the key educator, passing on to facilitators from a host of different agencies and communities the necessary skills to convene a community conference. This powerful process is being applied in a growing number of different community settings. But we have also applied the theory in new ways, to deal with conflict in workplaces.

Workplace Conferences

First, we developed the workplace conference, a forum that brings together the community of people affected by workplace conflict. The number of participants in a conference tends to range from a dozen to thirty. Participants generally deliberate for between three and five hours. The workplace conference provides them with an opportunity to express, in a setting of safety and confidentiality, concerns that they have about relations and communication in the workplace.

In the course of the workplace conference, the unwritten rules that we call workplace culture are laid out for consideration. Often these rules are then reconsidered; the workplace community decides that it should seek to change some of them. All workplace conferences conclude with a plan of action, with deadlines and clearly allocated responsibilities. So the workplace conference is not about experts solving problems. Nor is it about conference participants simply solving problems. It is more than that. Participants agree on ground rules for changing the systems in which they work. The conference acts as the catalyst for that process of systemic change, and change becomes everybody's business.

The success of workplace conferencing demonstrates that there is nothing so practical as a good theory. TJA has successfully intervened to deal with cases involving breached regulations, wrongful dismissal, malicious gossip, racial vilification and discrimination, sexual harassment, industrial espionage, theft, abusive supervision and safety breaches, inadequate or abusive management. These interventions have taken place in sectors ranging from mining, metalworking, civil engineering and construction, through transport, wholesaling and retailing, to television and radio, information technology, hospitals and medical research, and even church communities.

Lessons learned

Perhaps the most important lesson from these interventions has been this: Management and/or staff representatives often called us to deal with a particular incident. But in every case, the incident that precipitated our intervention proved to be symptomatic of personal difficulties outside the workplace, and/or deeper problems within the organisation. And once the conflict generated by the precipitating incident had been addressed and transformed, at least to some extent, participants then sought to address these external and/or deeper problems.

Transition Workshops

It was then a logical step to consider how these deeper problems might be addressed without waiting for some specific incident to prompt a reactive outside intervention. Over the last two years, we have worked with organisations to develop a process for effective proactive intervention. We call the result a transition workshop.

These workshops involve between twenty and thirty five people over two to three days. The workshop design guides the psycho-social dynamics of the group as they conduct an audit of relations within their organisation, and then move towards a plan of action for change. Recent exemplary transition workshops have: devised a constitution for negotiating an Enterprise Agreement; thoroughly redesigned workplace communication systems; reached formal agreements to improve the culture of communication within organisations; and catalysed rescue plans for several large mining operations.

In all of these cases, the transition workshop emphasises, through interactive learning, that an organisation is far more than the sum of its individual parts. It is a complex, adaptive system. And it will adapt best when conflict in the organisation is dealt with effectively, and transformed where necessary into a positive force for change.

In sum, we now place our work in six general categories:

· running training workshops in the government and community sector for community conference facilitators.

· producing related educational materials including a new leadership development program.

· TJA-convened workplace conferences to address workplace conflict, whatever its cause.

· shorter, seminars dealing with specific skills such as managing difficult people, and understanding emotions at work.

· coaching senior staff on the job in techniques of conflict resolution/transformation.

· convening transition workshops.

Dr David Moore
Transformative Justice Australia
phone: [61] (2) 9663 1389

This entire essay is copyright 1998 Dr. David Moore, All Rights Reserved.  Copyright 2000 Stephen R. Marsh is as to navigational aids only and asserts no copyright interest in the essay.

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