What are the Alternatives to Mediator Neutrality?

In two previous posts I challenge the notion of neutrality in mediation. I describe certain procedures in the process that undermine its credibility, I also describe some psychological phenomena that questions a mediators ability to remain 100% neutral. So if neutrality is unattainable should the mediation profession abandon the term and come up with a alternative?

Neutrality – A Straitjacket that Paralyses Emotional Honesty

Some commentators propose a reassessment of the concept of neutrality and that mediators and mediation providers need to change the way they promote mediation to end users. I have removed the term neutral from my marketing literature and now describe my role as omnipartial, a term coined by the renowned Ken Cloke,  to mean ‘on both parties’ sides at the same time’. Cloke argues that neutrality is like a straitjacket that paralyzes emotional honesty, intimate communication and vulnerability and undermines shared responsibility, creative problem solving and organisational learning. Cloke believes as mediators we should embrace our subjectivity and mediate as though the conflict were ours.

Others support the suggestion to use a more ‘dynamic’ term such as ‘balanced’ or ‘unbiased’ stating it would be a more accurate portrayal of mediation than the term neutral. As I have done, they acknowledge the inevitability of mediator partiality and favour the term equidistance which they describe as ‘facilitating a context where neither side is favoured or disfavoured’.

Assuming  the term neutral remains in place and until the profession rigorously debates the notion of neutrality, what as mediators can we do to actively address the issue through the way we practice?

Mediator Training and Development

One option is to enhance the way we train and develop mediators. Bowling and Hoffman in their famous book ‘Bringing Peace Into the Room’, refer to the third stage of mediator development, a phase that involves the scrupulous reflection of the values, experiences and feelings that as mediators we bring with us to a conflict situation. McGuigan, writing in Conflict Resolution Quarterly, invites practitioners to ‘search the undiscovered aspects of themselves’ that may be limiting their professional growth. This he says is the essence of reflective practice  ‘a critical inquiry that questions who we are and how we think, feel and act when mediating disputes’.

McGuigan invites us to reflect on our practice with these questions:

  • I as the mediator, am about to become a part of this conflict. How are others involved reacting to me?
  • How do I generally react to this kind of conflict in my own life?
  • What qualities am I bringing into the midst of this conflict that will support its resolution?
  • What repulses me about some of the stories my clients tell me?
  • What really annoys me about some of the clients that I work with?
  • Which of my colleagues do I idolize or strongly align my thinking and practice with?
  • What colleagues do I find myself reacting to or irritated with?
  • In my professional growth, where do I repeatedly undermine myself and flee from my best, riskiest self?

Humility and Enlightenment

It has been suggested by some, that developing humility can help mediators overcome their unconscious biases. It is believed that through the practice of humility mediators can recognise and accept their limitations and ‘subordinate self-interest’ for the greater good of a fair and just outcome. Nobel, writing in Family Court Review, explains the notion of equanimity which he describes as closely associated with Mindfulness Meditation. Someone that has ‘travelled beyond self-realization’ and regards all with an equal mind is thought to have achieved equanimity, Nobel considers this to be akin to impartiality.

Mediation and Meditation

Interestingly, Nobel isn’t alone in the belief that mediators can enhance their capacity for impartiality and neutrality through meditation. Leonard Riskin, who writes extensively on the subject of mediation is a strong advocate of Mindfulness Meditation to the extent that he has incorporated Mindfulness Meditation into his mediator training programmes. Riskin describes Mindfulness as a certain way of ‘paying attention moment-to-moment, with equanimity and without attachment to whatever passes through the conventional senses (touch, taste, smell, vision and hearing) and the mind (thoughts)’. Riskin believes that mindfulness can produce a state of non-judgemental awareness that can help a mediator to behave ethically, particularly when confronted with challenging dilemmas.

Whether or not Mindfulness Meditation helps achieve Bowling and Hoffman’s third stage of mediator development, it seems highly probable that cultivating an increased awareness of our unconscious prejudice and bias is an important goal to pursue for the benefit of the parties we serve and the profession at large.

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