Dr Roy van den Brink-Budgen is a world-renowned exponent of the discipline of critical thinking, accomplished international business adviser, trainer and writer, and a new member of the ASM PLUS team.

Mediation can be understood as the process of assisting disputing parties in resolving conflict. It is a process in which the clarification of issues is used as a central feature of enabling disputing parties to consider resolutions of conflict.

Given that critical thinking (CT) includes a focus on and emphasises the value of clear thinking, it can be seen that it can play a substantial part in successful mediation. Using the skills of CT, we can focus on the substance of what is being proposed or argued for by looking carefully at the sequence of the reasoning in what is being put forward. This careful examination will enable the participants in the process to see more clearly how a position is being argued for.

CT is very much a questioning method, and this is shown clearly in the context of looking at the sequence of reasoning.

  • What reasoning is being used to support this position?
  • Within this reasoning, how is each part built up to support the main point(s)?
  • What is being assumed (as in taken-for-granted, without being explicitly stated) in the reasoning?

A further stage in the process of using CT in mediation is to move from analysis of what is being put forward to reflecting on this by employing creativity to enable possibility-thinking. The questions that could be asked include these.

  • What if we look at this in a different way?
  • What happens if we make different assumptions here?
  • What other possible evidence might be relevant here?
  • Could we use an analogy here to highlight important aspects of the issue? If so, how does it illuminate the issue? (Another approach could be to see one factor in terms of another. A striking (though non-mediative) example is that Coca-Cola’s annual production of 3,000,000 metric tons of plastic waste could be seen in terms of 28,700 blue whales.)
  • Could we use a hypothetical position here? (If we accept x, then…)

These emphases on the value of careful and creative thinking can help us to deal with some of the problems that can arise in our thinking. For example, there is the problem of ‘belief perseverance’ in which we use what we already believe in order to filter out any information that doesn’t fit with what we believe. This approach might often be a useful one to take, but there are times when explicitly focusing on our thinking can reveal that we should think differently. This problem of ‘belief perseverance’ is similar to the one termed ‘anchoring’ in which, having invested time and other resources in one position, we are unwilling to move to a different position (though the evidence points to the value of doing this). There is also the familiar problem of using limited data to support big positions, and of retreating into unreflective familiarity (‘This is how it’s always been done, so it’s how we should continue to do this’).

Actively using the skills of CT in mediation can contribute to what is termed ‘metacognition’ or ‘thinking about our thinking’. In other words, if we actively use CT, we have to reflect on the quality of our own thinking, including the way in which we have arrived at a position. In using metacognition, one needs to (so to speak) stand outside one’s position and look at (and reflect upon) it as if it was a position simply being put forward for consideration. The value of possibility-thinking can be re-emphasised here, by using the questions asked earlier.

By CT’s encouragement of reflection (and in some ways, demanding of it), one’s thinking can become clearer, by having a more consistent and developed justification.

Of course, CT is demanding in that it requires careful examination of the way in we present our case (not least to ourselves). But, in terms of the resulting clarity, careful and well-justified thinking, it is an investment worth making.