Redefining Neutrality

By Diana Mercer, Attorney-Mediator, and Tara Fass, LMFT-Mediator, copyright 2005

Diana Mercer
Attorney-Mediator
Peace Talks Mediation Services
8055 W. Manchester Ave., Suite 201
Playa del Rey CA 90293
(310) 301-2100
www.peace-talks.com

This article was previously published in the Southern California Mediation Association Newsletter, October 2005.

Diana Mercer and Tara Fass are co-mediators with Peace Talks Mediation Services, Inc..www.peace-talks.com.

The definition of mediator as the Neutral Third is the cornerstone of traditional mediation training.Nice in theory; impossible in practice.People in conflict are people in despair. Reaching out of their isolation to make a connection to the mediator is a healthy response. To respond neutrally is to miss this opportunity.As mediators it’s up to us to become empathetic guides: invested, but not aligned.Mediation artistry builds a bridge with and to both clients, abandoning neither.

To pretend that mediators, who are also human beings, can be completely neutral about everything is naïve at best. Using our instinct to bond with mediation participants can work in our favor as mediators, rather than against the mediation process.It’s a variation of the idea of inter-subjectivity in psychology literature:the mutual shaping that transpires in the relational bonds between human beings that is the basis for all outcomes, positive or negative.Mediators who work on their inter-subjective bonds with participants are cultivating their influence, rather than imposing their will.

Mediators who work on their inter-subjective bonds with participants are cultivating their influence, rather than imposing their will.

In terms of mediation, it may be that a financial settlement is being discussed and one client develops a lost, faraway, blank look on her face.The mediator notices this non-verbal behavior and comments on it by verbally checking in to see what the client is experiencing before continuing the discussion.Intersubjectivity is the willingness of the mediator to tune into and act upon an understanding which the mediator has formed based on his or her sensitivity to micro-expressions as well as verbal cues in forming a bond with the client as a way of advancing the mediation agenda.

This mutual shaping occurs through the process of developing rapport, understanding, connectivity and empathy.Engaging with our clients in this way we become what we call the ’empathetic guide.’We attempt to do this while maintaining neutrality and without over-stimulating or further dis-regulating the clients.In the example of the financial settlement above, though we might need to for the clients to make a decision quickly, it might be more productive to first direct our energies toward addressing the unfinished emotional business of the relationship without rushing the agreement in hopes that the clients will appreciate the swift resolution of the articulated problems. The idea is to stay on track with the client’s individual pace and to understand how and when a client becomes overwhelmed so that we can better address their concerns in order to move through the mediation process and build the foundation for a strong agreement.

This is the standard we strive for in all the various phases of building a relationship with and dealing with mediation clients.While becoming the ’empathic guide’ is the goal, we also realize the boundaries of that role within the mediation context.It is our responsibility to make the process as therapeutic as possible without confusing a therapeutic approach to mediation with therapy itself.