Is it really possible for a mediator to be neutral or impartial with clients?
This is an issue I’ve been grappling with for quite a few years now, ever since I started to mediate. While it hasn’t gotten easier to answer this question, my understanding of this issue has become much deeper and more multi-faceted – and I’m sure will continue to evolve over time. As I share my thoughts on this subject with honesty and an attitude of intellectual curiosity, I invite you, my readers, to keep an open mind and then come to your own conclusions.
As with any discussion of this nature, definitions are extremely important. So I first want to define what I believe is meant by the words “neutral” and “impartial” in the context of mediation.
For me, neutral implies that the mediator is maintaining a distance, not fully engaging or interacting – holding him or herself intentionally aloof from the process. That’s certainly not the role I see for myself in the mediation process – nor the most effective role to help the parties resolve their conflict.
On the other hand, I do believe that the mediator can, and should, maintain a role of impartiality as he or she helps the parties towards resolution of their conflict. So what exactly does this look like? Impartial implies that the mediator is unbiased and is not taking sides. (Interestingly, a mediator can be impartial even if he/she knows the parties and is familiar with their conflict, such as with diplomatic mediation between warring countries or groups.)
The impartial mediator is able to genuinely connect with the parties, empathize with them, and engage and lead them in discussions that ultimately bring them to resolution. So, while still being impartial, the mediator is better able to “frame” the conversations so that the needs and concerns of the parties can be adequately explored. And that makes it more likely that the parties will ultimately reach a win-win resolution of their issues.
Please share your thoughts on this subject in the comments section below. Thanks!
Comments from Social Media
Susan, people have been dancing with this one for all the years I’ve been around mediation. I think your comments capture what we as mediators do about the issue as well as it can be captured. The simple answer is that since we are human beings with all our human complexity and potential for being affected directly and subtlety by others, of course we can’t be “entirely” neutral or impartial — we are not machines — but we can try hard to emulate the behaviors and values you described, so that professionally, we get about as close as practically possible to the ideal. And part of our repertoire, as mediators, is to be in touch with ourselves continuously so we can see or intuit when, ethically, we may need to take ourselves out of a case when we sense our reactions might take us into dangerous territory.
John (Norval) Settle
Hello Susan – We are all human and as such, we all have our own beliefs and prejudices. However, when we sit at that table,and begin uttering our introductory statement, it is incumbent upon us to clothe those prejudices with the figurative robe of impartiality. It is only by using our skills to discern each party’s hidden agenda and helping them reach a modus operandi that will work for them that we can be of value in our role.
In my opinion a neutral mediator is a waste of time and money… it even makes the clients feel inferior… the mediator is not giving the problem enough importance…the mediator is way above the matter …the clients wonder if the mediator is listening !!! The mediator must be impartial. In order to come to a resolution, the mediator must get involved listening carefully , taking note if necessary, helping the clients to feel confident and calm and finally getting as close as possible to a win-win resolution because humans have been taught that one must be the winner always so giving way to a tie is hard. This is where the acceptace of the resolution by both clients is a reflection of well managed mediation.
Just as the integrity of a court proceeding depends upon a judge preventing bias from affecting his or her decisions, so also does mediation. As professionals we must continually remind ourselves of our obligation to maintain our neutrality. Knowing that one has a bias is different from letting it affect one’s work and one’s recommendations. Preventing bias from afflicting professional performance requires self-awareness, discipline, and a recognition that both parties will benefit from a balanced deal that actually gets done. Neutrality doesn’t demand silence or acquiescence to an aggressive party. Just as judges are guided by the law, we can be guided by a professional understanding of the elements of a good deal.