What is the basis for a mediator’s approach to mediation? On what does a mediator base his/her decisions? The role of mediator is often described as a third party neutral position, yet how is neutrality possible when s/he has to sort incoming information through a classifying and categorizing process that reflects his/her personal worldview? Each of us holds a personal worldview, and as mediators we face a bewildering dilemma: our human-ness does not allow us to remain neutral, yet we must find a way to deal with conflict that reflects respect for both the parties and the process.
If we examine real life mediation practices, we find relational complexities that are easily masked by our assumptions about mediator neutrality. It is an occurrence that happens all too often. The mediator is presented with a case and reviews the particulars that appear in the court papers. The facts are presented — a couple is involved in divorce proceedings, and child custody and visitation are primary issues. The mediator sees this case as one more in a long line of cases where disintegrating family relationships are put to the test, and the services of a neutral third party are required. The divorcing couple is looking for solutions or so the mediator would assume. Their ongoing crisis is filled with hurt, pain, and disappointment at the very least, and at its worst the crisis is filled with anger, hostility, and revenge. Intense emotions often prevent parties from seeing a way out — from detaching themselves from their personal pain. It is the mediator who is asked to create a setting where these parties might interact at a level that allows the crafting of an agreement acceptable to both sides. In a metaphoric sense, the mediator is under the gun. S/he is expected to deal with the emotional undertow present between the disputants, which affects the very nature of their conflict. How this is done is left to the wit of the mediator and the tools at his/her disposal.
So, what is behind this process? A mediator, just as every other human being, functions from a personal worldview. This point does not, however, imply that the worldview is consciously known. Instead, it implies that a worldview includes a series of taken-for granted assumptions on the part of the mediator that may or may not be shared by the mediating parties according to their cultural background (Winslade & Monk, 1999, pp.58-60). Various factors, including cultural background, impact the nature of the assumptions from which a person functions. Assumptions are not merely opinions. They are deeply rooted in identity (Bohm, 1997). Both assumptions and identity bear strongly on mediator behavior and are directly linked to a mediator’s level of self-awareness. It is important for us to recognize that mediators unwittingly scrutinize the narratives of the mediating parties by comparing the narratives with personally held views. Generally speaking, mediators are not aware that this action is taking place since it is a split-second reflex action.
As mediators, we are not granted immunity from the struggles that arise between hidden assumptions and incoming information. Each mediator interacts with others from a personal body of knowledge, a.k.a., a worldview. This personal worldview is connected to unaware but very real and binding assumptions and expectations. Viewing the world through a personal value system is the dynamic state called worldviewing (Docherty, 1998). It is a human activity that is continuous, unconscious, and in a constant state of tenuous evaluation. To illustrate this point, a mediator observes an exchange between parties. The mediator’s observation includes each party’s tone of voice, the attitudes expressed in body language, and facial and body motions combined with the words. The mediator collects this body of information within a matter of minutes and holds this information up to past experiences that are permeated with emotional tones and stored in his/her memory. The mediator makes decisions based on the contrasts and similarities found between the event that is presently occurring and the body of past experiences existing in the mediator’s memory.
The dynamics of worldviewing involve the complex interaction of our assumptions and expectations with our environment. Although we can feel this interaction if we are aware of our moment to moment emotional patterns, its occurrence cannot be seen with our physical eyes. The invisibility of this continual interaction blinds us to the development of our awareness. Invisibility is the biggest reason we have such difficulty comprehending and accepting the intricacies of worldviewing. We do not believe that our emotions color our decisions in meaningful ways. Furthermore, we believe that we can separate our emotions from our decisions and experiences at will. Lack of self-awareness in this area casts shadows on a mediator’s ability to grasp the inclusiveness of relational dynamics as they are occurring in the mediation setting between the parties and the mediator.
The complex nature of this problem can be seen in the following real life example. A typical community dispute involving two neighbors needs assistance, and a relatively new member of a volunteer community mediation center is called upon to mediate. The mediator, although mediating for just a year, comes to the table with many years of professional business, education, and military experience. An initial training of thirty hours in basic community mediation has prepared the mediator for this case. Like many other neighborhood conflicts, this case centers on parking rights between condominium owners living next door to each other. The setting for this mediation is a conference room in a municipal court.
There are no unusual markings to this case until the parties arrive. It then becomes apparent to the mediator that the disputing parties are markedly different in their cultural heritage. The disputing parties are also of opposite genders. From the start, the mediator’s observation of the cultural and gender differences activates personal hidden assumptions that lay under the surface but remain potent. As the mediation proceeds, the disputing parties become entrenched in the uniquely diverse expression of their rights. This triggers a number of the mediator’s hidden assumptions including those assumptions related to power, authority, and protection. The mediator’s value system underscores the activity of this scene, and it is reflected in the mediator’s decision to use coercive tactics to reach an agreement. It is important to note here that the mediator is a committed and dedicated individual who believes in the mediation process and the concept of neutrality. A deep desire to serve others and the community motivates this individual to act in the role of mediator. As disconcerting as it may be, it is these same well-meaning intentions that prevent the mediator from identifying the underlying reasons for his/her decisions, which ultimately compromise the concept of neutrality.
A mediator’s lack of both self-awareness and an understanding of worldviews can turn a “routine” mediation into a frustrating situation for all concerned. In this example, the mediator is ill equipped to deal with the issues of cultural diversity, and unwittingly proceeds to add insult to injury in attempting to bring the parties to resolution. Underlying issues of identity, equity, empowerment, and self-determination for the parties are neither acknowledged nor addressed in any way. Thus, important contributing elements to the conflict are left unspoken. Issues of neutrality, impartiality, power, and authority are at question for the mediator who remains unaware of how and why the process has been compromised.
The outcome to this case does not tell the whole story. What is visible is that an agreement is reached. What is not visible is the price paid for the agreement. The participants lost the opportunity to release painful feelings and to gain a more positive perspective of the situation. The process, too, has lost something, for the participants have reached an agreement that is half-hearted. It is an agreement that is imposed upon the disputing parties’ unresolved feelings. The agreement lacks full commitment. In this case the mediator has used position, influence, and coercion in the belief that to reach agreement is the ultimate goal of mediation. This belief is superimposed over the concepts of integrity, dignity, and respect in the name of mediation. Well-intentioned decisions have gone awry due to the mediator’s lack of understanding how a worldview deceptively alters the decision-making process. Transformational possibilities fade as narratives take a back seat to the interest based rationale of reaching settlement.
Mediators need methods for developing heightened self-awareness. In recent field research with community and family mediators, I tested a process that can bring hidden beliefs and assumptions to the surface. My findings indicate that through metaphoric analysis of the elicited responses a mediator can learn a great deal about his/ her worldview. Techniques for self-awareness and self-analysis can be taught as part of a basic mediation training program. Once learned and practiced, this information becomes a decidedly useful tool to the mediator. It can improve a mediator’s ability to acknowledge and alter basic assumptions that fuel discriminatory perceptions about disputing parties during mediation. With an enhanced understanding of how worldviews and worldviewing work and how they influence behavior, mediators may find themselves changing the very nature of their approach to the dynamics of the mediation setting. It is a mediator’s willingness to engage in developing effective self-reflective techniques that will ultimately change the face of mediation.
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