At a recent meeting of mediators, the topic of pre-mediation and conflict coaching was addressed. Specifically, the question of whether it was possible for a mediator to coach both parties individually and maintain neutrality and objectivity. Mediators often find themselves working with parties and, due to a wide array of reasons, experience barriers to remaining neutral. Some of these include mediator maturity, unresolved past experiences, too much time with one party over the other, sympathy toward the values, character, and disposition of one party over the other…the barriers to neutrality can be as variable as the humans involved.
If we were to be honest, we must admit it’s not possible to be completely neutral in any situation. This is particularly true when one party’s sense of right and wrong conflicts with that of another party, and our call to help them navigate this conflict is motivated by our own sense of right and wrong. (What a mess!) Can we really set aside our own values to work solely with what the parties bring to the table? Of course not, but we do our best not let our own biases dictate the outcomes of the parties’ process.
This is increasingly difficult when the mediator is also coaching the parties as I tend to do in all my private cases. This becomes more necessary when relational dynamics are an obstacle to creating substantive solutions. In my experience, this is most mediated cases.
You spend an hour, or several hours, with one party coaching them through the mindsets that are keeping them from hearing the other party. How, then, are you supposed to present to the other party without your own sense of what “really needs to happen” for them?
I will say that our hindsight is always our best foresight. The more cases you mediate, the more you are aware that there’s always three sides to every story: my side, your side and the truth. Our first challenge in remaining neutral is forgetting our role as a mediator and taking on the role of a detective: getting down to what really happened. Don’t get me wrong, details are important, especially when mediating highly substantive matters. But the art of mediation, the true gift of a mediator, is not gaining agreement on the past, but helping them agree on the future. Remember that you’re getting their perspective of the facts; so note what you need to, but hold it loosely until it becomes relevant to reaching agreement later on. You will get the other party’s perspective of the very same facts, and it could be that no one will ever know what the truth is.
Coaching is about helping the parties envision an amicable future, and bring their most collaborative self to the table. You develop rapport and trust by maintaining advocacy, not for the individual, but for the collaborative process that will serve the individual. This can be a very delicate dynamic. Once you’re at the mediation table, you can discern which, if any, of the details regarding the past are important to nail down. I find that this is minimal in most cases.
The second challenge is confusing our role as a mediator with that of a counselor, or even a judge. We enter this field because we want to help people resolve conflict. And the longer we’re in the field, the deeper our collection of “ideal outcomes” becomes. It’s easy to envision how this could turn out, or “should” turn out based on what the parties have told us about themselves, each other, and the situation. Once we’ve filtered that information through our moral lens, it’s tempting to step into the role of problem-solver…and the parties would love for you to do that work for them. If/when we do, they may be impressed with our ideas (at least one of them may be) and we’ve gained an admirer…but we’ve not done our job. In fact, we’ve made our job much more difficult than it needs to be.
We must not take on the responsibility of solving problems for others. And they may never come to an agreement that looks as good as what we idealized, but it’s not our agreement. When we stick to facilitating the process and using our expertise to stimulate collaborative conversation, our biases are more easily kept in check. This is not to say that we should neglect to point out possible blind spots or future stumbling blocks, but, in order to maintain the neutrality that is essential to effective mediation, we must keep the burden of problem-solving on the parties. This not only serves you as the mediator, but increases the likelihood that parties will follow through on the agreement, because it was their idea. The increased value for the parties, is that they experience resolving their own problems, which empowers collaborative engagement in the future.
I believe it is possible to practice neutrality even after spending a substantial amount of time with each party in coaching prior to mediation. You’re not going to be neutral, you can’t be. But remembering your role as coach and mediator, not as an advocate, problem solver, or detective, will help you stay focused on the task at hand: helping parties think collaboratively, focus on the future, and produce their own solutions to their own problems.
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