Need for Clear Language Initiative to un-Babel Our Models

Houston, We Have a Problem

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  We use rotten language to describe our ideas and theories.

Theory is important because it guides actions.  Concepts are building blocks of theory.

It’s a real problem if we use different language for similar concepts or the same terms for different things.

And boy, do we ever do that.

For example, one traditional negotiation model is called “distributive,” “competitive,” “adversarial,” or “positional negotiation,” and the other is called “integrative,” “problem-solving,” “cooperative,” or “interest-based negotiation.”

The “evaluative” mediation model includes very different elements including providing analyses of case, making recommendations, making predictions, and pushing parties to accept a specific agreement.  People use “evaluative” referring to different elements of the model.

So we have created a Tower of Babel that confuses people in our field, not to mention laypeople.

Professional jargon is helpful in some fields because it promotes communication between professionals like brain surgeons and rocket scientists.

But jargon is extremely problematic for dispute resolution because it confuses and excludes laypeople and other stakeholders.

Last week, I gave a talk for the Hastings Center for Negotiation and Dispute Resolution, How to Combine “Positional” and “Interest-Based” Negotiation and “Facilitative” and “Evaluative” Mediation.  I showed how our models of negotiation and mediation are composed of variables that are quite distinct from each other and often do not occur together in the real world.

By unbundling the variables that compose our models, we can specify our ideas and actions more precisely and clearly.  For example, we can focus on the value of expected outcomes (aka BATNA values) that is commonly the heart of “positional” negotiation and also focus on intangible interests that are the heart of “interest-based negotiation.”  Similarly, we can specify and combine particular elements of the “facilitative” and “evaluative” models.

Here’s a video and the powerpoint from the talk.

We Can Solve Our Problem

The ABA Task Force on Research on Mediation Techniques recommended “development of more uniform definitions and measurements of mediator actions and mediation outcomes.”  In other words, we need clearer language.  And not just about mediation.

It would help to replace our models with clearer, concrete language focusing on the variables encompassed in the models.

The test should be that we should be able to “explain it like I’m a five (or fifteen) year old.”  This is important so that we can communicate effectively with people with limited language abilities.

Clearer language could:

  • Improve communication with disputants and other stakeholders
  • Help students navigate worlds of practitioners, clients, and faculty
  • Promote collaboration between researchers and practitioners
  • Provide standard keywords for research

Of course, people could use any language they want, but we could improve communication if we recommend that people use certain commonly-understood language about basic concepts.

We need some collective action to develop common language most effectively.  A common-language initiative could be accomplished by a committee coordinated by a major professional organization or academic institution.  This initiative might include:

  • Review of academic and practice literature
  • Discussion by experts
  • Focus groups with academics, practitioners, and disputants
  • Public forums and comments

For more detail, see this post in the Kluwer Mediation Blog.

This post provides some examples of clearer language that most people would easily understand.

6 thoughts on “Need for Clear Language Initiative to un-Babel Our Models”

  1. John: I agree that the terminology has lost meaning. It has distracted the mediation community with discussions of what is right/wrong, which promotes self-determination, etc. Your post, as always is very thoughtful and welcomed.

    1. Thanks, Kathleen, as always. I think that many people agree.

      The question is if anyone — or, really, any organization — will do anything about this. I think that this requires some manageable collective effort.

  2. John, I should probably watch your video and powerpoint before commenting, but generally that hasn’t stopped me before
    As you know, achieving a common argot for the field is an old hobby horse of mine. There is a dictionary already (Jossey-Bass), but dated (doesn’t include LIRA), and an encyclopedia (done by Heidi and Guy Burgess). Heck, Wikipedia isn’ so bad in some places. In other words, there is a “base” from which to start unless it makes sense to start from scratch. Indeed, edited Wikipedia entries could serve as a platform and mode of delivery (but I both digress and get ahead of myself). None of these previous works may have tried to unpack the processes as you suggest, but that’s an evolutionary possibility. One big problem in the previous work is that the “field” being served is vast, broad, and diverse. Even if the focus is just on mediation, people working outside the context of the legal system who identify as mediators may think differently about process and meaning than an ABA committee. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly agree that the effort should be made, and it should include a strategy to move academics and practitioners to whatever common meanings are most helpful to reduce confusion. On the other hand, this could be a totally sisyphean task suitable only for retired academics. 😉

    1. Thanks, Doug. I’m thinking of something that might involve a relatively small number of terms, perhaps 20-40, not the 1400+ terms in your dictionary. And I think that this would not be creating new jargon or defining basic terms like mediation. Rather, I suggest we agree to use concrete terms for specific behaviors and concepts in everyday use. I think we need language that people will retain in their heads without looking them up in reference books.

      The powerpoint provides some possibilities in the variables listed in slides 12-14.

      I also discuss this in the Theory of Change book, in a short piece starting on page 254.

  3. Hello John,

    I just listened to your October 28, 2020 presentation for the University of California–Hastings Center for Negotiation and Dispute Resolution. Thank you for providing a link to the video and your power point. I also heard you speak to the Association of Missouri Mediators on May 29, 2020 about some of the ideas in your new book.

    I write as a former academician/social scientist (1975-1996) turned lawyer who practiced law as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Missouri representing Missouri’s Family Support Division from February 2006 through December 2018.

    For those reasons, I bring a combined perspective to ways in which individuals can “self-help” conflict management processes and take advantage of the processes mediators can provide in managing conflict.

    First, your point about overlooking very common patterns, e.g., child support schedules and parenting plan schedules, a/k/a “norm-based” or “ordinary legal” negotiations, is very eye-opening for me. I could not practice mediation as an AAG representing the State in child support cases, but I can certainly understand how those norms about child support schedules and parenting plans play a role in the mediation process.

    Second, as a former social scientist who studied divorce mediation back in the 1980s, I respect your recommendation to focus on specific variables (not general models), focus on variables about professionals’ actions re Clients, and focus on variables about issues. I look forward to reading the Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution article that you referenced in your powerpoint. While I would never be inclined to practice evaluative mediation, the mediation process I would hope to design along with the parties would be an appropriate combination of facilitative and transformative principles. But then again, we need to get beyond the general models.

    Third, thank you for the link to “Theories of Change for the Dispute Resolution Movement: Actionable Ideas to Revitalize Our Movement.” Helpful reading on November 3, 2020 for sure!

    Finally, if I can be of help in a clear language initiative, please let me know. I would be very happy to contribute to the effort.

    With best regards,
    Deborah J. Weider-Hatfield, Ph.D., J.D.
    Saint Louis, MO

    1. Deborah, thanks for your very thoughtful comment. Apologies for the delay in my response. For some reason, other things have occupied my attention in the last few days.

      You gave the greatest compliment to a writer by reading my writings and attending my presentations. Of course, like all writers, I hope that my work attracts people to read and consider it and hopefully advance their own thinking.

      I would love to see people take up the manageable task of the clear language initiative I described. I wonder if everyone is too busy and distracted and that no one wants to take on this project. If not, that would be a shame because I think it could provide great benefit for our field and the people we serve. I still hope that some professional or educational organization will recognize that it could provide a great benefit to the field and itself by undertaking this initiative.

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