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This article was previously published in "Peripheral Visions," Mediation News, Summer 1998. Vol. 18, No. 1, pages 8-9. Copyright © 1999, Academy of Family Mediators
However, while I have found some refuge in mediation practice, I find the evolving belief in the profession about the nature and personality of a mediator to be too simple and bland. The conventional wisdom in the field is that a mediator is a humanistic, compassionate, patient, empathetic and rational listener, slow to anger and frustration and eternally optimistic that all issues can be resolved and have a right and proper resolution.
While I would like to believe I exhibit some of those traits sometimes, much of the time I fall short. Listening to other mediators discuss the subject, perusing conference workshop offerings, or reading literature in the field, often makes me feel even more isolated and out of step. Some have even suggested that natural mediators can be discovered through psychological testing using such tests as the Meyers-Briggs Inventory. Some mediation training participants come fortified by a career counselor who, after careful analysis, has determined the candidate to be well suited to mediate by virtue of the fact that he or she is a "caring individual and a good listener."
I think that what many say the character traits of a good mediator should be are not what they actually are. Some research has confirmed that there is a gap between what mediators say they think they are doing and what others observe them to be doing. As well, truth be told, my own experience suggests that mediators are not particularly thoughtful, empathetic or rational when dealing with their own conflicts. (Something akin, I suppose, to "the shoemaker has no shoes"). I do not intend to impugn the integrity of mediators-quite the opposite. I am only suggesting that the personality traits that best serve mediators may not be the most obvious or commonly presented.
In contrast to the conventional belief of which traits make a good mediator, (or perhaps as justification for my poorly evolved personality), I have distilled four important attributes of the natural mediator. They are as follows: (1) confused, (2) voyeuristic, (3) compulsive, and (4) marginal. Rationality and empathy are strategically useful but they are second tier attributes that can be learned if the first tier attributes are present.
Those who naturally possess this trait know who they are. There is a simple test: when confronted with the query, "Are you part of the problem or part of the solution?" you find yourself unable to respond. Like a deer caught in the headlights, you are immobilized. Not wanting to be part of the problem, you want to respond quickly and categorically, but upon hearing the solution set forth, just can't join the cause. Those of us of this ilk endure the chronic malady of a sore rear end from constantly sitting on the fence. This confusion serves a mediator well-it allows him or her to naturally understand there are no easy answers and to help confuse parties who presume otherwise. The confused mediator more readily sees the validity to each person's perspective and more naturally resists aligning with any particular person. They recognize that heroes can be scoundrels, and victims can be perpetrators, and vice versa. It's never easy or clear.
This attribute is troublesome; most assume voyeurism to be a form of sexual perversion. While it can be that, in this case it is associated with an endless fascination with how other human beings engage each other, construct their realities, and pursue their intimate relations. This attribute allows the mediator a greater ability to resist being judgmental, knowing that "there but for the grace of God, go I." How else to explain the popularity of Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Springer, and The National Enquirer? A mediator does not so much do disputing parties a favor by helping them settle conflict, but is rather being honored by being invited by them to aide in managing some of the most intimate matters of their lives.
This personality trait is probably the result of conflictual early toilet training. It is the penchant to bring order out of chaos. It should not necessarily be confused with the neurotic behavior Freud termed "anal compulsion," although that may be part of it. If one assumes that a good measure of conflict is less about allocation of resources and more about people being overwhelmed and fearful that they will be taken advantage of and made to look like a fool, then compulsive organizating-with the use of maps, charts, and a clear structure are essential. The mediator is the wilderness tour guide and must be well prepared. The mediator can't just wander along with them, but must instead sense and anticipate the parties' fears before they become overwhelmed.
I don't mean to suggest that mediators exhibit the characteristics of borderline personality disorder, although I suspect from time to time we have all wondered about ourselves. The implications of being marginal are that the mediator is not aligned or associated with any cause or purpose other than to help the parties make decisions for themselves. Groucho Marx said it best: "Any group that would have me as a member isn't worth joining." It means letting go of attachments to what life should be in a perfect world-one good for children, women, men, minorities, and other people of every stripe and kind. The mediator has to be on the fringe-an outsider-less concerned about what is right, than with what will work to settle a dispute in the present circumstance. Mediation is not about social justice.
Perhaps as mediators we try to hard to impose
on ourselves unrealistic and artificial
expectations of what we should be. In other
words, we try to be saints when what may serve
us the best is to recognize and use our basic
nature. I suspect that many more of us are
naturally confused, voyeuristic, compulsive and
marginal than we are rational, patient and
understanding in the path of conflict. The
difference is that a good natural mediator has
learned not to deny his or her basic nature, but
rather to harness and use those amply provided
attributes or vulnerabilities to our advantage.
Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and training courses nationally and internationally. He is a standing Adjunct Professor at the Straus Institute for Conflict Resolution of the Pepperdine University School of Law, at Southern Methodist University’s Program on Conflict Resolution and in several other schools and universities. He is a past President of the Academy of Family Mediators, a Practitioner Member of the Association for Conflict Resolution, and the American Bar Association’s Section on Dispute Resolution. He is the author of numerous book contributions and articles, including “The Mediator As Trickster,” “Guerilla Negotiation,” and “The Beauty of Conflict,” and is a Senior Editor and regular columnist for Mediate.com.
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