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Psychological Barriers to Neutrality in Mediation

Ken Cloke, in his inspiring book, Mediating Dangerously, disputes that even outside observers to conflict can remain neutral as they inevitably become part of what they observe and that the process of listening alone can have a profound and directive impact on the parties and the outcome. Favaloro, a psychologist and mediator shares this view and believes that neutrality is a myth because biases are always present at the simplest levels of age, race and gender.

So how does this impact Neutrality you wonder?

Mediator’s are Emotional Einstein’s

In Duffy’s paper on Empathy, Neutrality and Emotional Intelligence he argues that in the same way the mediator can influence the parties, so too can the parties influence the mediator and therefore mediator bias can be the subtle and unfortunate consequence of a mediator who remains unaware of the personal impact a party’s story may have on them. It is these subtler forms of psychological interference that pose the greatest threat to mediator neutrality because they reside deep inside our psyche and require ‘Emotional Einstein’s’ to recognise them and address them.

Duffy acknowledges the mediator’s difficulty of remaining completely neutral when dealing with the emotions of parties and describes factors that can cause a mediator to sympathise rather than empathise with a party. Broadly speaking these factors occur when the personal feelings, values and sensitivities of the mediator are influenced by the plight of a party.


The first of these phenomena is called Countertransference, a term familiar to those in helping professions but perhaps not necessarily to all mediators. Countertransference might arise when a mediator’s own emotional, behavioural or cognitive experiences (past or present) are realised in a party’s present situation. This phenomenon happens at a deeply unconscious level and can cause the mediator to over identify with the predicament of a party. This over-identification can be both positive and negative causing the mediator to intervene in a partial manner thus leading to a loss of neutrality.

Countertransference in Mediation

For example in a recent mediation, I noticed my co-mediator reacting angrily to what appeared to me to be a fairly innocuous comment. I was struck by the reaction of my co-mediator who seemed to adopt an accusatory and rhetorical approach to their questioning. It stood out because I noticed the party responding defensively to what seemed a sudden change in attitude by me colleague. It was only during our debrief that my co-mediator became aware of this and after further reflection, revealed that it was something about the turn of phrase the party used that was similar to a phrase her former husband used. This turn of phrase evidently triggered an unconscious reaction in my colleague, not to the disputing party, but to her past experience that she identified in the party.

The Shadow Effect

Another fascinating psychological phenomena to threaten a mediators neutrality is characterised by Carl Jung’s concept of the Shadow. When we are strongly repulsed by another’s beliefs or actions or when we sense an alignment with one party but not the other, we are, as one commentator  contends, under the influence of our shadow side which contains elements of our personal unconscious that as mediators we bring into the conflict arena.

“Projection M’ lard!” … “Overruled”!

According to Jung we all possess a shadow side and we carry it around with us like a bag. Inside the bag is a mixture of dark and repressed feelings and thoughts that make up an alternative personality with its own autonomous thoughts, ideas and value judgements. One way our shadow side comes to the surface is when we find ourselves reacting intensely to a behaviour or quality in someone that we attribute to an individual or group, this is known in psychological terms as Projection.

The concept of projection relates to the transfer of unwanted thoughts or feelings onto another. It is described by one writer as our propensity to see in others what we least like to see in ourselves or as one commentator puts it “everything you ever wanted to know about yourself but were too afraid to ask”.

Projection in Mediation

An example of projection occurred in a mediation I ran where one party was delayed by an hour. They were apologetic when they arrived and soon settled into the joint session following a very brief preliminary meeting. During the course of the joint meeting I attempted to summarise the position of the party and reflected back that they seemed irritated, to which they responded quite the opposite. I recall at the time feeling confused that I’d so blatantly misinterpreted their feelings, but as we broke off into private meetings I quizzed my assistant who also found my interpretation strange as the party didn’t seem at all irritated! I can only assume that at some level I was holding onto some unacknowledged feelings of irritation probably stirred by the late arrival of one of the parties, I’m a devil for punctuality!


From this research it seems inevitable that a mediator is likely to think and act in ways that are inconsistent with the theoretical notion of neutrality and, significantly,  be unaware of doing so. It also seems apparent from my earlier post that quite a number of the procedural mechanisms within mediation challenge the ideal of neutrality and conflict with other mediator ideals such as self determination and empowerment.

So what are the alternatives to neutrality? I’d be delighted to hear your views, so please leave them in the comment box below, I read and respond to every one.

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