Negotiating Politics: Mediators and Neutrality
Let's be clear about one thing. Mediators are not human Switzerlands.
We have opinions, often strong ones, about issues like the rule of law in America, negotiated resolutions to intractable conflicts, the proper role of force against another sovereign nation and whether torture is a tool Americans ought to be using in the name of national security.
Because we mediators spend so much time listening to litigants' competing stories of right and wrong, I don't think I'm going out on a limb to say that we "get" the great gray expanses that separate fear from understanding, anger from compassion and "the truth" from one's subjective experience of it.
What motivated this post was a recent challenge to a mediator's "right" to express his political beliefs in a mediation forum. "You're supposed to be neutral," said the challenger. "It's wrong and unprofessional to express your political beliefs here."
As the Presidential election nears, I want to clarify my own views on mediation neutrality, particularly my belief that we mediators do and should leave our neutrality when we close the mediation room door. Neither I, nor this blog, is "neutral" about the upcoming election. I am actively campaigning to elect Barack Obama because I believe he is best suited to withdraw our troops from Iraq, reconcile ourselves with the world community, respond to conflict as a negotiator rather than as a conquerer would, and restore the damage done by the Bush administration to the rule of law in America. If I cannot say this because I am fearful of offending some of my readers or concerned that some potential clients will choose not to use my services, I would count myself unworthy of the freedoms fought for by those who came before us.
What it Means to Be an ADR "Neutral"
Though there is disagreement among scholars about the precise nature of "mediation neutrality," a recent article on the subject at BeyondIntractability.com expresses my own view. That article quotes negotiation gurus Kevin Gibson, Leigh Thompson, and Max Bazerman on the three distinct types of neutrality that mediators can and do practice.
Neutrality as impartiality, which holds that the mediator should be free of bias and should set aside his or her opinions, feelings, and agendas;
Neutrality as equidistance, which focuses on the idea that mediators should try to give equal consideration to each side; and,
Neutrality as a practice in discourse.
These theorists believe, as do I, that it is part of a mediator's job to assist the parties in framing the problems and to lend guidance in expressing their tales of injustice to one another. The mediator, say these scholars,
gives each side a chance to talk about their positions and concerns, and then reframes these issues in a more neutral way so that parties are more likely to listen to and understand the other side's viewpoint[, t]hne helps the parties . . . explore settlement options and to move toward a solution that all can agree on.
Neutrality from this viewpoint "means that the mediator who facilitates this discussion should not have an interest in advancing the goals and positions of any party involved."
Leaving One's Neutrality at the Mediation Room Door
To help people resolve conflict requires a mediator to develop certain ways of listening; particular ways of communicating; and, specific ways of thinking about the malleability of "objective reality" in our subjectively experienced lives. The practice of mediation is also revelatory of the raw power of people's affiliative desires -- their persistent urge to reconcile differences and settle accounts.
When I leave the mediation room, I remain a mediator in spirit -- one who has seen the value of negotiated resolutions over the useof brute force and the power of collaboration over deference to an authoritarian decision-maker.
I cannot express my preference for Barack Obama any better than my friend and mentor Ken Cloke did in the electronic pages of mediate.com this spring. As he concluded,
[c]apable international diplomacy requires open and committed listening, informal problem solving, prejudice reduction, collaborative negotiation, public dialogue, mediation, arbitration, ombudsmen’s offices, conflict resolution initiatives, and a panoply of proactive, adequately-funded resources that can be brought to bear on any problem. Positive examples can be found in every successful mediation and collaborative negotiation. Ideally, peace-making should receive the lion’s share of our national budget, allowing us to train every diplomat, and international representative in the most advanced mediation skills, include mediation in every treaty, and form an international corps of conflict resolvers, capable of building conflict resolution capacity globally, including in the US.
As mediators, we need to recognize that we also are global citizens, and responsible by virtue of our knowledge and experience for helping to save the planet. We need to weigh in on the important issues of the day that directly touch on our expertise, including not just who we negotiate with, but how we negotiate and why. Without it, Obama and the perspective he represents may succumb to those who think patriotism requires war and the slaughter of innocents. The time to speak up is now.
In electing a new President to lead us into a productive future, I believe, as do many of my mediator friends and colleagues, that Barack Obama is the clear choice. If our political future is important to us, we will not hesitate to publicly lend him our support.