Brown Bag Meetings Ensure Reflection

By Laura Melton Tucker, August 16th, 2009

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This summer’s Conflict Resolution Quarterly, featuring multiple articles on mediator neutrality and power, arrived at my office at the perfect time…right on the heels of an interesting mediator discussion on neutrality at our courthouse “brown bag” meeting. Every month ten or more mediators gather to talk about our experiences, with the goal of sharing information and learning from one another. At our last meeting we discussed how we describe ourselves to our clients in our opening introductions. Do we call ourselves “neutral” or “multi-partial?” Practice guidelines identify mediators as “neutral,” but some at our meeting prefer to use the word “multi-partial,” believing this term speaks to our desire to work for both sides. A lively discussion ensued, and mediators left with lots to chew on.

In Arghavan Gerami’s Quarterly article, “Bridging the Theory and Practice Gap: Mediator Power in Practice,” the concept of mediator neutrality is exploded as an impossible theoretical construct. The author asserts that mediators exercise a significant amount of authority and power in their roles constructing and transforming conflicts. In mediators’ efforts to bring the hidden interests of the parties to the surface, Gerami argues, they attend to the content of the agreement so that all interests are represented. Whether refocusing the issues, reframing the client’s statements, or reconstructing the contours of the conflict, mediators shape and exert control over the conversation. This mediator power, unchecked and unexamined, can derail the mediator’s ethical responsibility to remain neutral.

According to Gerami, most mediators fall into two camps. In the first group are those who are settlement driven, often offering suggestions, reframing issues or putting forth reality checks, with an eye on helping the parties reach a settlement. In the second group are mediators who primarily focus on enhancing communication and constructive dialogue to encourage the parties to bring forth their needs, concerns and interests. Whatever camp a mediator falls into, he or she is an “active and influential agent of change” – a participant in a three way dialogue. Mediators from both camps employ techniques to break down the whole into smaller more manageable pieces, while “repolarizing” and making more attractive the pieces to bring about resolution. Accordingly, “if the mediator truly succeeds in not exercising any power, then the process is not all that much different from straight negotiation, with an additional person present but not adding anything more.”

As it turns out, our brown bag talks are Gerami’s solution to dealing with the challenges of mediator neutrality and power. Collaborative professional meetings give mediators a chance to share their experiences in “continuous, self-critical, non-defensive and open dialogues.” Our own brown bag meeting never delivered a final verdict on which term, multi-partial or neutral, we should use. Calling ourselves multi-partial is a subtle indication to our clients that we want both sides to leave the mediation feeling satisfied with the outcome. On the other hand, sitting in the client’s chair, it might feel more important to hear that the mediator neither endorses nor opposes a point of view. Calling ourselves neutral may be the only way to convey this. The takeaway is that ethical mediators, in our professional discussions and in our individual practices, must stay alert to neutrality and power pitfalls, choosing to acknowledge our power while neutrally “steering the wheel” to bring the parties toward their desired outcome.

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