One-Up, One-Down: Power Imbalances in Mediation

One-Up, One-Down: Power Imbalances in Mediation By Susan Ingram

I recently participated in a discussion with a number of colleagues who are therapists working with couples and their families. We had all just witnessed a divorce mediation session where a couple was discussing the parenting arrangements for their two children, both under the age of ten.

The husband and wife were both foreign-born, although they had lived in New York City for quite a few years and had raised their children here as well. They had decided, because of money issues and a desire to be closer to family, that the mother and children would move back to Italy. The father needed to continue working at his job in New York City, and it was not clear if, or when, he might have the opportunity to move his home to Italy as well.

The couple seemed to be on the same page and discussed their parenting plans in a polite and rational manner. While it made sense monetarily for them to proceed with this move, it became clear from the father’s body language and tentative responses that he was concerned. Because of the distance involved and the fact that he could not afford to visit them often, his relationship with his children could suffer. His sadness was almost palpable.

It was during our discussion after the couple left that one of the therapists made a simple observation: “There’s always one-up and one-down.” She was referring to the fact that, in any relationship, it’s rare that both parties will have an equal amount of power. Typically one party ‘has the advantage’ and the other, ‘less of the advantage.’

What can, and should, a mediator do when faced with an imbalance of power between the parties?

Power imbalances can manifest themselves in many different ways. Sometimes it’s very apparent, such as where one of the spouses has always handled the budget and checkbook and has a much better understanding of financial issues. In that situation, I might suggest that a financial neutral be consulted in order to bring the less knowledgeable spouse up to speed.

Or a power imbalance may be less apparent on the surface – such as with the couple I’ve described above. An experienced mediator pays close attention to the verbal statements and non-verbal gestures of both parties. We use our empathic abilities. And we ask good questions throughout the mediation process to help each of the parties clarify those concerns and needs that are most important to them.

While I have an obligation to maintain my neutrality as a mediator, I also have as strong an obligation to support the less-powerful party so that his or her voice is heard. My goal is ultimately to help each of the parties identify and express their needs, so that the agreements they reach are informed and fair.

I look forward to hearing your comments on this subject. Please post them in the box below.


Comments From Social Media

We should help both parties be heard, especially one that is less dominant. I also think, and this is just me, that we have to be careful about not making assumptions about whom we believe is in the one-up position and whom isn’t as we only are meeting people for a short period of time. Some parties are also accomplished con artists. I know that is not the angle of your post, Susan, but some people do know how to get their way very well with impression management. In the scenario you wrote of, I am fully supportive of helping someone whom appears deeply saddened, yet might not be asserting their “voice.”

Michael Toebe


Hearing what is not said aloud is the essence of deep listening. When I encounter the conundrum of serious to severe inequality of power or skills or decision making I just keep asking questions until it becomes evident in the answers even to the two parties. Currently, I am working with a couple in Parent Coordination. One is a complete bully. After a session with the other and a little reassurance, that parent has begun to make some parenting decisions with which the other is not in agreement for the benefit of the children.

Joyce Mitchell


Power imbalances often serve to sustain conflict in relationships. When one party has a one up position and uses their position in an “unfair” way, it builds resentment. Resentment may trigger retaliation and a cycle of power struggles through conflict that continues through a divorce. Mediation can help to balance the power but unmanaged power imbalances in mediation may result in an agreement that provides an illusion of agreement but ends with continued conflict post mediation. You are correct to point out the responsibility of the mediator to be a voice for the weaker party.

David Clyde


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