The term empowerment is used to refer to a number of processes, but all involve giving one or more parties to a conflict more power. This may be in relation to another party, or it may involve increasing the power (and hence efficacy) of all of the parties at the same time.
The most common use of the term empowerment refers to increasing the power of the low-power group, so that it more nearly equals the power of the high power group.
From the perspective of intermediaries, this is often done because negotiation tends to be more successful when the parties negotiating have relatively equal levels of power. When they do not, the lower power party tends to get co-opted, or otherwise treated unfairly in the negotiation or mediation process. To prevent this from happening, the mediator can take a number of steps to empower the lower power group.
The mediator can provide access to outside resources, give advice, give negotiation or communication skills training, or structure the process in a way that somewhat favors the low-power group, thus in a sense balancing out the power differences. (This approach calls into question the notion of impartiality, as do many of the other methods of empowering one group more than another, however.)
This problem is avoided by the use of transformative mediation, which is an approach to mediation which has as its goals the empowerment (and recognition) of all of the parties to the mediation. Empowerment in this sense does not mean leveling the playing field as it does in the earlier sense, but rather increasing the ability of all parties to successfully deal with their situation on their own.
Empowerment can also refer to a larger, group-level, or societal level process, such as that which occurs with peacebuilding or the re-establishment of a civil society and traditional conflict management institutions.
Many third party intervenors have come to realize that the disputants themselves have very useful conflict-resolution skills, which have simply been discarded or forgotten in the height of the conflict. If they can be resurrected, or new approaches established, people can usually do a great deal to improve their own conflict situations. This, too, is a form of empowerment.
From the perspective up members of the low-power group, empowerment refers to efforts to expand their power base. While intermediaries may contribute to some of these efforts, much more is done by the parties themselves. Of special importance are unconventional power strategies which allow disempowered members of unjustly treated groups to defend their interests against more powerful parties.
This is likely to involve increased reliance on the integrative system and coalition building with outside sympathizers. Also useful are strategies which employ a power strategy mix or combine force and persuasion such as non-violent protests.
Such efforts to develop sound strategies which disempowered parties can use to advance their interests can do much to limit destructive conflicts which arise when desperate people pursue hopeless and destructive strategies.