Every day we avoid some conflicts with our colleagues, spouses, children, and members of the community because it’s just easier that way. But when there is a specific decision that must be made or we have to reach agreement on something, that’s when we enter into negotiation. If negotiation fails, mediation is a useful alternative.

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Neutrality is the term that folks in conflict resolution circles use when talking about not taking sides in a conflict. Neutrality is possibly the most important concept when it comes to mediation. When two parties become unable to discuss their issue with each other, they need someone on the outside of their difficulties to facilitate their discussion; someone who can listen equally well to both parties and can be trusted by both parties. Mediation will never work if one of the parties thinks the mediator is taking the other person’s side because mediation is a process that must be mutually agreed upon. If I think the mediator is siding with you, there’s no way that I will agree to participate!

The term ‘objective’ used to get thrown around a lot, as in ‘we need an objective third party to help us resolve this conflict.’ Many people assume objective is synonymous with neutral, but they actually mean very different things. To be objective means to deal with things based on facts and without feeling or partiality. Neutrality, on the other hand, speaks to the skill of simply deciding to not act on one’s bias.

In my mind it is actually impossible for a human to be objective. I think we are built to experience the world subjectively. We run on conscious and unconscious biases of all kinds at all times, we are subject to waves of emotion throughout each day, and our brains are fueled by a chemical and electrical  fusion that neuroscientists can barely understand. Although humans can be very good at logic, I think we’re kidding ourselves if we expect even the most skilled negotiators or mediators to be objective.

To be neutral as a mediator I need to first be AWARE of my biases so that I will not be controlled by them. Say for example that I’m working with co-parents who are trying to make decisions about whom their child spends school holidays with. I may have a personal belief, or bias, that Christmas is a really important holiday so it should be shared equally between parents. But what if one or both of these parents don’t have the same belief?

Perhaps the mother claims to not care about spending Christmas with their daughter because she isn’t religious and has no living relatives, and in fact summers at the cottage are a much higher priority. Further, maybe the father would be really pleased to spend every single Christmas with their daughter and would be happy to trade that for the mom getting the same 2 weeks of July every year. If I assert my bias and suggest that they find a way to each spend alternating Christmases with their daughter, I would be completely at cross-purposes with this team who is approaching an agreement. I would be making war not love!

In mediation I am biased towards fairness, and want to see both parties get their interests (what people really want and need, not necessarily what they say they want and need) met. The two parents above may have an interest in sharing holiday time fairly, but it is up to them to define what ‘fairly’ means for their co-parenting family. As a mediator it is not my job to advocate for solutions to their issue of dividing up holiday parenting time, but it is my job to advocate for fairness. Being neutral as a mediator is often like being multi-partial; I can be partial to both parties getting their needs met.

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