ADR: What’s In a Name?

Many industries are known by an abbreviation or acronym. Manufacturers and installers of heating and ventilation systems describe theirs as HVAC — an abbreviation-cum-acronym for heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning. Our industry — principally, the industry of mediation, arbitration, conciliation, and negotiation — has chosen for itself the unfortunate abbreviation of ADR.
Close up shot of industrial fan while spinning
I should clarify: It is not that ADR is an unfortunate choice, but rather that for which it stands — namely, alternative dispute resolution. I’ve always had a visceral dislike for the ADR thing, the reasons for which, if you’ll indulge me, I shall articulate below.

When people are in conflict, they feel vulnerable; and when people feel vulnerable, they reach for sources of safety and strength. That which is alternative suggests neither. Alternative connotes the fringe, something potentially radical (and hence dangerous or risky) and certainly unconventional.

The term ADR established itself in the 1960s, when formal ADR processes were being conceived by the founders of the ADR movement. (Menkel Meadow, C. 2000. Mothers and Fathers of Invention: The Intellectual Founders of ADR. Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution. 1-37). At that time, the ADR abbreviation served its purpose, being both descriptive and well-chosen as a differentiator from litigation or violence. But the term has since, I believe, become a professional liability, scaring away many more people than it attracts.

I’m not the first to say it, but I also take issue with neutral. I don’t believe people in conflict want neutrals. They want advocates and problem-solvers — people who can and will actively engage in conflict and extricate the parties therefrom. Neutrality connotes aloofness and ineffectuality.

Mediators frequently wring their hands, troubled and frustrated by the industry’s failure to find broader acceptance. To this end, I’ve often wondered what a Madison Avenue advertising agency would do if it signed our industry as a client. The first thing, I imagine, would be a whole new lexicon. What say you?


  • 1
    July 9, 2011 - 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for posting this. I completely agree with your thoughts.

  • 2
    Andrew Liebing M.D. I
    May 10, 2012 - 10:05 am | Permalink

    I found the comments relating to private practice and practice management very interesting and
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  • 3
    May 18, 2012 - 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Industry names are rarely chosen to be timeless. Sometimes they stick, with others, the industry changes, evolves, grows its identity and the old acronyms and naming no longer fit. It is time to change the awareness of Mediation as an industry and frankly, I would be interested in seeing a Madison Ave firm pick up one of the major organizations in the industry to further this as a best course of action before litigation.

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