Why Neutrality is Unrealistic and Unattainable in Mediation

Mediators espouse the notion of neutrality and claim in their opening statements that they are neutral third parties, yet all the research suggests that this is a false promise.

Third Party Neutral

It is widely acknowledged that the term Third Party Neutral or neutrality in the context of mediation is laden with difficulty. Ken Cloke argues that genuine neutrality is impossible when it comes to conflict because we all bring with us our values, experiences and perspectives into conflict situations that enable us to empathise with the experiences of others. Folger believes that merely introducing a third party into a conflict situation influences the outcome of that dispute and for that reason they claim the notion of mediator neutrality has been discredited.

Neutral to Content or Process

Some commentators question whether neutrality applies to the content but not the process, arguing that procedural mechanisms in mediation, such as rectifying imbalances of power, are in conflict with the notion of a neutral process. On the other hand some argue that the term ‘Third Party Neutral’ locates the mediator outside the intervention process, when in fact the mediator’s psychological makeup, their emotions, beliefs and values play a part in influencing the outcome, stating that the mediator’s fingerprints are apparent throughout. For that reason it would be impossible to maintain content neutrality which is why the Narrative Mediation approach rejects the notion of neutrality.

Procedure and Psychological Barriers to Neutrality in Mediation

So it seems there are at least two factors that present a strong argument to challenge the claim of neutrality in mediation. The first relates to the procedural elements of the mediation process, the second to the psychological phenomenon that influence mediator behaviour at an unconscious level.

In my next post I’ll delve deeper into these two issues.

As usual, please tell me what you think. Leave any comments or questions below and I’ll respond to every one.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/fffrimp Erica Yoon

    Can’t wait for the next post. As someone thinking about entering mediation studies, the question of neutrality is central to whether or not I believe I can be efficient in this role. Thank you for engaging in this important and complex issue.

    • http://resolvegb.com/ Aled

      Hi Erica – thanks for your comment. I think neutrality is sticky subject that mediators grapple with. To what extent we can be neutral and what are the unintended consequences of neutrality?

      There’s a great interview on Mediator Academy which debates the notion of 3rd party neutrality. I think it’s the Lee Jay Berman interview. Be good to hear your views on that..

      Apologies for missing our Skype conversation – I’ll email you to reschedule :)


      • http://www.facebook.com/fffrimp Erica Yoon

        I’ll watch the video soon. For Skype, whenever it is convenient for you. I have time and besides with all the information you share on line, I have plenty of reading and learning to do – so some of my questions have already been answered!

  • Rina M. Goodman

    Not sure why mediators continue to insist on referring to themselves as neutral. We aren’t blank slates, are we? Our skill lies in our ability to remain impartial, however; that is where the true value of mediation lies.

    • http://resolvegb.com/ Aled

      Thanks Rina,

      I think when mediators refer to themselves as neutral they are doing so for the benefit of their clients (an assumption I’m making, I know). I say this because I doubt very much when in a commercial mediation say, the parties understand the difference or are even interested in the difference between neutrality, impartiality, omnipartiality, mutuality….the list goes on.

      As long as the parties understand what our role is and how we intend to facilitate discussions and feel we are consistent with what we espouse then that’s the important bit, I think.


      • Rina M. Goodman

        I agree that parties often don’t understand the difference. I think that a mediator’s lack of clarity may be more problematic. In order to have the skills to mediate a dispute or facilitate a discussion impartially–even when one’s emotional buttons are being pushed–one needs to know the difference, don’t you think? ~ Rina

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