An Ombuds Journey: Transformative Mediator to Transformative Ombuds

By Kristine Paranica
University Ombuds - North Dakota State University

I was first introduced to Organizational Ombuds’ work during the years that I lead a community mediation center on another campus.  About 10 years ago, the faculty at that university had begun to petition to add the position of Ombuds.  In support of their effort, our Center helped to bring in the Ombuds at the University of Minnesota to educate the campus on the benefits of the Organizational Ombuds.  I found the presentations intriguing, though I was quite happy in my role directing the mediation center at the time, and so didn’t apply for this new position.   Unfortunately, the Administration did not take the role seriously, created road-blocks to confidentiality, and hired someone who had no experience in any of the skills required of an Ombuds.  They left after 9 months, ending hopes for an Ombuds.  

Three years later, our Center underwent budget cuts and Administration decided to gradually close the Center.  Shortly after we received that news, I was approached by North Dakota State University to apply for their first full-time Ombuds.  I was leery given my experience at the other university, so I asked many questions and realized that they had done their research and were doing this the right way.  I applied, and was offered the position. 

My experience at the mediation center really prepared me well for Ombuds’ work.  During that time, I managed staff and supported volunteer members.  I had a Board of Directors who were mentors for me as I grew in my skills and abilities required at the mediation center.  As a mediation center practicing Transformative Mediation, we were guided by a set of principles to support our practice, and expanded those practices to conflict coaching and group dialogue.  As a Fellow of the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation, I have had access to colleagues across the globe to collaborate with and deepen these practices. 

My background in law has also served me well in my role as an Ombuds.  While I do not dispense legal advice, the legal skills for problem solving and identifying issues has been invaluable.  It also provides me a level of privilege and respect generally given to those in the legal profession, which often lends well to persuasive conversations with others on campus.  “Thinking like a lawyer” can have great benefits!

I have enjoyed my work as an Ombuds at NDSU.  At the mediation center, we traveled all over the region and wore many hats.  As an Ombuds, I wear one hat which makes it easier to focus on issues and concerns on campus and give visitors the time and attention needed.  At this point in my career (7 years practicing law, 17 years in community mediation and education, and 7 years as an Ombuds), I really enjoy the one-to-one interaction with visitors, offering coaching, training/education, group facilitation, as well as the chance to mediate a few times a year.  It is rewarding to be making a difference with individuals as well as the university as a whole.

My touchstone for my Ombuds’ practice, beyond the IOA standards of practice, are the Transformative Mediation premises:

Human needs and capabilities

  • A person’s reality is unique to that person and based upon his/her life experiences.
  • People have inherent needs both for advancement of self and connection with others. 
  • People are capable of making decisions for themselves – and want to do so.
  • People are capable of looking beyond themselves – and want to do so.

Conflict and its effects

  • Conflict causes people to become relatively weak and relatively self-absorbed, thus diminishing their capacity to make decisions or consider others’ perspectives.
  • Conflict is relational in nature and represents a challenge to the quality of the interaction among participants.

Empowerment and recognition

  • Conflict resolution processes that promote empowerment and recognition provide the opportunity for people to restore their capability to make decisions and consider other perspectives. 

This understanding of conflict helps me to take an optimistic view of my visitors and avoid seeing them as victims or offenders, but rather as someone who is likely temporarily challenged, and experiencing a lack of balance.  They may feel a lack of agency, confusion, or disconnection.  The value I provide as an Ombuds is to listen to them and reflect back and summarize what I’m hearing so they can get more clear about where they are, what they need and want, and how I can help.  While I often do some policy or procedural research with visitors, my annual evaluations speak volumes about their experience of feeling heard and understood, and of regaining their agency in the situation.  It also inspires me to be humble as I assist visitors - in that they are the experts of their own experience and situation, and I respect their ownership of their conflicts vs. taking a “fixer” role and trying to solve things for them. 

This philosophy of supporting and standing with, vs. taking control and fixing, is also how I care for myself in this role.  Early in my mediation practice, I learned that taking home my client’s conflicts was a short path to burnout, and in the end, didn’t provide the clarity, ownership and confidence I wanted them to have.  I can’t say I never spend time rethinking certain situations at my workplace – how to make more significant change, etc., but I’ve learned how to protect my energy in the process.  This is a lesson we all learn in the helping/supporting professions eventually.  This is critical advice for new Ombuds entering the field.

Early in my mediation practice, I learned that taking home my client’s conflicts was a short path to burnout, and in the end, didn’t provide the clarity, ownership and confidence I wanted them to have. 

I am grateful for the fullness of my life and work experiences that have lead me to this point in my career as an Ombuds.  I was able to step into this position with years of knowledge about conflict resolution, adult education, mediation, facilitation, and training, and a long history in higher education that prepared me for working as the University Ombuds.  A key to success for me has been a natural curiosity and willingness to learn, and a need to give back and support others. 

The IOA community has been very supportive.  When I first started as an Ombuds, I reached out to an Ombuds I met many years ago through the Association of Conflict Resolution (ACR).  I called her and she and her colleagues helped me to set up my office, lent resources, and provided guidance.  As a solo Ombuds starting a new program, this assistance was invaluable (along with Chuck Howard’s book, “The Organizational Ombudsman”).  One of my greatest joys with the IOA has been the mentorship program – I had a great mentor, and I am striving to be a great mentor to new Ombuds.  I have also enjoyed serving on the Conference and Professional Development committees where I have worked with wonderful colleagues.  Anyone entering Ombuds’ work is well advised to engage with this organization early to learn, get support, and stay connected to the many resources IOA offers.  We all must continue to work in community to support each other and the highest standards of practice.


How to Submit

This post continues our series representing the various pathways one may take in their journey as an ombuds. If you would like to share your journey, please email your narrative to [email protected]. We will be collecting stories throughout the month of June and we encourage both members and non-members to submit and share their experiences here on IOA's Blog. 

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Need help getting started?

Here are some prompts to help you frame your narrative:

  • What first inspired you to fulfill the role of an ombuds?
  • How has your educational background helped you succeed in this role?
  • What professional experiences helped shape your path?
  • What allows you to stay prepared for success in your role?
  • How do you care for yourself to ensure your sustainability in this role?
  • What guidance would you give others that are interested in starting their journey?


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