Mentalizing-based Mediation (MBT-M) at the UWA Mediation Clinic

image002 This post has been contributed by Associate Professor Jill Howieson, University of Western Australia. 


This article asks and answers some questions about the new UWA Mediation Clinic and the theory behind the practice, education, and research that the Clinic conducts.  Jill Howieson is the Director of the Mediation Clinic and Lisha van Reyk is the Research Co-ordinator and Manager.

What are we doing in mediation at the UWA Law School?

At UWA Law School, and in the newly opened UWA Mediation Clinic, we teach, practice and research in a mentalizing-based approach to mediation (MBT-M).  The pioneers of MBT, Professors Peter Fonagy and Anthony Bateman from University College London are working with us in this endeavour and will be running the inaugural MBT-M training course at UWA in July – you can see the flyer attached.

Can you tell me a little bit more about MBT-M?

What we have noticed is that there is a wide variety of ways that mediation is practised and taught around the world and a wide roster of activities that mediators undertake.  However, there is a lack of an underpinning theory of interpersonal process to mediation.  We believe that MBT (Mentalization-based Treatment) is an underpinning theory that could provide mediators with a framework through which to understand the behaviour of parties during a mediation process.

MBT is an internationally recognised, evidence-based approach to working with people experiencing substantial conflict, distress, and relationship breakdown. It was originally developed to treat individuals experiencing personality disorder and has demonstrated subsequent efficacy in the treatment of a range of psychological and relational disturbances.  There are a range of mentalization-based treatments, including for children (MBT-C), families (MBT-F) and adolescents (MBT-A), and for chaotic multi-problem youth, AMBIT (adolescent mentalization-based integrative treatment).  These models have been developed mainly by groups associated with the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, of which Professor Peter Fonagy is the CEO, and the Duchess of Cambridge is the Patron.

In MBT-M with its focus on mentalizing, the mediator can utilise interventions that facilitate and deepen the communication process. In contrast, counterproductive party behaviour can be halted and transformed by specific, indicated interventions by the mediator.  We anticipate that this can bring greater nuance and rigour to the implementation of mediation models, management of inter-party conflict, and interpretation of mediation success.

What is Mentalizing?

The mentalizing concept refers to the capacity to understand one’s own and other’s behaviour based on intentional mental states, such as feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and desires.  Intentional means it means something (Allen, Fonagy & Bateman, 2008).  It is the capacity to consider what one’s own mental states and those of others might mean and how this might influence behaviour.

Mentalizing comes from our understanding of the neuroscience and the differences between the Mentalizing System or theory of mind (ToM) system in the brain and the Mirror Neuron System.  The Mirror Neuron system is a coherent large-scale network which supports automatic action understanding and imitation.  The Mentalizing System is a smaller, less developed system but concerns regions that are all activated when we infer intentions referred to mental states.

Mentalizing is one aspect of social cognition sets us apart from other primates. It underpins our ability to deceive, cooperate and empathise, and to read others’ body language. It also enables us to accurately anticipate other people’s behaviour, almost as if we had read their minds. In a negotiation or mediation context, the research is showing that the mentalizing system needs to be activated for people to negotiate well and to make meaningful decisions.

It sounds great.  What happens when our mentalizing system isn’t activated?

When we are in conflict, or highly emotionally aroused (for whatever reasons, i.e. relationship breakdown, stress, lawyers’ behaviour, intimidation of the court etc) our mentalizing system is deactivated.  Mentalizing goes ‘offline’: our mentalizing capacity is reduced and this means that we are unable to act in a way that makes sense to ourselves and others.  It impairs our ability to make good decisions, vision realistic alternative futures or be flexible about our options and better able to consider alternative ways of resolving disputes.   This is where MBT comes in.  MBT can assist people to re-engage their mentalizing capacity or repair impaired mentalizing.  It is an integrated psychotherapeutic treatment that derives from philosophy, psychology, psychiatry, and attachment theory and utilises what is referred to as the Mentalizing Stance.

The Mentalizing Stance…?

When our mentalizing goes offline, we become alienated from understanding of self and others, rigid in our behaviours (work in automatic mode) and get stuck in our positions (as opposed to interests).  To restore and maintain our mentalizing function, we need to be encouraged to attend to the mental states in ourselves, and the mental states of others.  Practitioners can assist in this restoration by taking what is referred to as a ‘mentalizing stance’.

The mentalizing stance aims to foster a spirit of inquiry into and clarification of the person’s mental states to bring mentalizing online.  The mentalizing stance involves using the inquiry mode when asking about another’s experience and exploring the full detail of the person’s unique situation and experience, rather than assuming it follows a general pattern.  It is a non-judgmental, non-expert and entails having patience and taking the time to identify differences in perspectives and maintaining curiousity about the person’s experience.

OK, sounds relatively simple, is there more to it than this?

Yes, as well as taking a mentalizing stance, mediators need to be alert to non-mentalizing.  Of most importance is recognising psychic equivalence, pretend mode, and teleological understanding, all of which suggest that mentalizing has been lost or is impaired. Some examples that you might hear in negotiation and mediation might include: Physic equivalence (concrete mode), “There is absolutely no way that that offer is genuine.  She just wants to control me.  She does this to me all the time.” Pseudo mentalizing (pretend mode), “Oh yeah, I understand where they are coming from.  I understand that their excessive need to be right and fear of being wrong is going to lead them into making them feel insecure and that they might need to compensate for that by creating an offer that looks attractive.  I get it.” Or Teleological, “They arrived late for this mediation today because they don’t want to settle.”

At the UWA mediation clinic we will be investigating these non-mentalizing modes of behaviour and how mediators might intervene in ways that identify and shift non-mentalizing behaviour

So, back to the UWA Mediation Clinic… linking research, teaching and practice

At UWA, we teach the NMAS Facilitative Mediation course as underpinned by mentalizing theory. In this, would-be-mediators learn the basic skills involved in the facilitative model and the core principles of MBT with a focus on the mentalizing stance. As such, participants build a working model of mediation and, within this, competency both in recognising mentalizing in self/other and maintaining a curious stance. Early this year we opened the UWA Mediation Clinic to begin researching MBT-M and to develop a rigorous evidence-based approach to mediation.  In 2019, we will be introducing Clinical Legal Education for law students who will work with pro-bono mediators and act as mediation advocates for ‘real-life’ clients.  The UWA Mediation Clinic aims to provides excellence in the practice, research, and teaching of mediation.  You can read more here:

And finally, the MBT-M training in July 2018

The MBT-M training course has been developed with Professors Bateman and Fonagy.  It aims to increase the capacity of those already working in mediation settings to understand and effectively intervene when parties are in conflict.   Attendees will learn to formulate conflict from a mentalizing perspective and to use this knowledge to engage the mentalizing capacities necessary for parties to communicate wisely. This training is relevant for those who work with cases that involve relationship breakdown (e.g., family law, workplace, and commercial disputes, etc.).  The training is open to all mediators.  You can Register at:

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