Is Neutrality an Attainable Ideal in Mediation?

A recent conversation with a friend first prompted me to explore further the notion of neutrality in mediation, whether it was necessary and even attainable. What I discovered has changed the way I practice mediation…

My friend, a child psychologist, expressed an interest in training to become a mediator and specialising in family and matrimonial mediation. Her view was that her expertise in child psychology would enable her to advise parents how best to protect the needs of their child as they seek separation, particularly in the case of a young child. My immediate response was that the mediator’s role isn’t to offer advice, make suggestions or recommendations, rather to help facilitate the conversation that leads the parties to their own solution – consistent with the values of mediation and the fundamental principle of mediator neutrality, but I failed even to convince myself.

In the following series of posts I intend to share my thoughts.

Neutrality and the Core Values of Mediation

Neutrality is seen by many as one of the central principles of mediation, synonymous with a fair process and an important reference point for mediators.  Some commentators consider neutrality to be an important tenet in a mediators’ claim to professional legitimacy. It is seen as such a core concept that the term ‘Mediator’ and ‘Third Party Neutral’ are often used interchangeably. Without referring to neutrality, some believe the process cannot be called mediation.

Neutrality is also seen to be firmly enmeshed in the core values of self determination, and party empowerment and therefore without neutrality a party’s ability to retain decision making power and achieve a fair and just outcome is compromised. It is such a key feature of mediation that Mediator Codes of Conduct in Europe and the US, stipulate that neutrality must be a governing ethic and that mediators must behave in a way that is wholly consistent with this ethic.

From the outset, aspiring mediators learn about the importance of neutrality as they undergo their mediator training and are encouraged to be explicit about their neutrality as they deliver their introduction at the beginning of every mediation. We see it further reinforced in mediation agreements  that incorporate provisions that emphasise the role of the mediator as neutral, who will neither judge nor offer advice to the parties. Indeed these assurances about mediator neutrality seem to be convincing factors in many parties’ decisions to participate in mediation.

What does Neutrality in Mediation Mean?

Neutrality can be defined as ‘the state of not supporting or helping either side in a conflict or disagreement and the absence of decided views, expression or strong feeling (Oxford Online Dictionary, 2011). In a legal context it is thought to mean freedom from prejudice and bias but in mediation neutrality seems to conjure up a number of differing interpretations.

Some eminent commentators suggest neutrality incorporates two elements. The first, impartiality, refers to the ability of a mediator to remain unbiased in their dealings with the parties. The second refers to the notion of equidistance ‘facilitating a context where neither side is favoured or disfavoured’. This notion of equidistance acknowledges that at times the mediator is required to temporarily align his or herself with individual parties in the interest of fairness. Interestingly, one commentator describes equidistance as the active process by which partiality is used to create symmetry. One could say neutrality contains contrasting parts, on the one hand remaining impartial and on the other acting partially in the interest of fairness.

One particular writer conceives Mediator neutrality along three dimensions:

1. Independence, where neutrality is seen as the relationship between mediator and disputant.

2. Disinterestedness,  referring to the mediators interest (or lack of) in the outcome.

3. Impartiality, which relates to the way the mediator behaves towards each party and conducts the process.

Some commentators refer to neutrality along a continuum, with neutrality in its strictest sense occupying one end of the continuum and the other end a more flexible notion of neutrality, for example, allowing mediators to make partial interventions to even up imbalances in power or therapeutic interventions to address issues of emotion or intrapersonal conflict.

Others have dismissed the relevance of neutrality and instead prefer the idea of impartiality as an ideal for mediator practice.

To find out why I think Neutrality  is unattainable read my next post…

Tell me what you think, I’d love to read your comments, so please leave them in the box below. I read and reply to every single one.

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  • Ali

    I love your topic and the idea, and it helpful to know more about the mediators in US

    • Aled

      Thanks Ali. Not sure if you’re aware of my other website There is a stack of information about mediation and mediators from right around the world. There are over 100 interviews with some of the biggest names in mediation from the US as well as many other countries. Let me know what you think.

      Thanks for your feedback


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