On our flagship training course, the Interpersonal Mediation Practitioner’s Certificate, there is a group activity that perfectly highlights the glaring need to maintain impartiality.
Split into pairs, learners are handed a sheet of paper with two large text boxes, under the following headings:
“Think of five trivial things that would be likely to bias you towards someone”
“Think of five trivial things that would be likely to bias you against someone”
And, whilst everyone can have a good laugh at some of the unusual answers that others say (wearing brown pointy shoes for the latter was a personal favourite!), there are also a number of other common traits that frequently pop up.
We often hear aspects of how people look, for example having tattoos or unkempt hair, or specific ways in which people behave, whether it be someone that’s too loud or too shy. Even really trivial things, like the football team that somebody supports, often make an appearance.
As a result, it’s clear to see that it doesn’t take much for our opinion of someone to be altered, for better or worse, regardless of whether we actually know them or not.
And, unfortunately, this simply cannot get in the way of our practice as mediators.
Contrary to other forms of dispute resolution, mediation aims to find an agreement without the input of a third party. Whilst one is in fact present, their only role is to facilitate the conversation being had, leaving the disputants to focus on their own concerns and on working towards an agreement.
However, if a mediator allows their own prejudices and biases to affect the process, it is to be expected that the parties would feel the need to respond, taking their focus away from the desired end goal.
For example, if the mediator appears to take Party A’s side, Party B will become angrier, more aggressive, and totally uncooperative. This will only serve to entrench the negative feelings of the conflict further and cause them to resist the process, making a resolution virtually impossible.
On the other hand, it will also have a negative effect on Party A, despite them being the individual that the mediator is siding with. After “convincing” us of being the victim, and gaining that desired support, they may then play up to this role, focusing more on themselves rather than the actual conflict.
And, when neither party is fully buying in to working towards an agreement, the chances of success are relatively low.
How do we stay impartial?
Let’s be clear, we are not saying that mediators should be robots devoid of personality or emotions. Quite the opposite actually, as these are important in adding a human element to the sensitive and often overwhelming nature of mediation (see our ‘Empathy’ article).
We are saying, however, that we need to keep these biases in check and remain professional throughout. You may well think that one of the parties is entirely at fault for the conflict that you are dealing with, or that one of them looks more trustworthy and reliable, but the important thing is that none of these factors should influence how we manage the mediation process.
After all, no-one can seriously claim to be 100% impartial, but we can step back, monitor our actions, and adjust them if necessary.
To achieve this, there are a number of steps that we can take. These include:
• Enter with a neutral mindset and leave all existing opinions of the dispute behind
• Be clear about your role and let the participants know of what they can expect from you, including your impartiality
• Avoid leading questions:
“Do you think that this is right?”
“Are you saying that this should be done?”
• Have a sense of self-awareness in what you’re saying and how you’re acting, whilst also being vigilant of any biases creeping in
• Have a bank of generic phrases to respond with, to emphasise a point without adding your own input:
“You sound angry about this situation”
“I can see that it frustrates you”
When you think about it, impartiality isn’t a natural occurrence. As normal human beings, we have an innate ability to subconsciously judge everyone we meet, helping us to decide whether we like or dislike an individual, as well as everything in between.
As such, controlling how we present ourselves is a difficult task, but one that is absolutely necessary for the success of mediation.
Train to become an accredited mediator with our Interpersonal Mediation Practitioner’s Certificate
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