As conflict resolution professionals, we are all supposed to be neutral and impartial.
If we cannot meet this standard, then we are ethically bound to reject a case. Over the last 27 years as a Group Facilitator and Mediator, I have had to regularly confront this issue on many levels and in many forms. I’d like to spend a few moments musing on my experiences with, and ideas about, neutrality.
My first thought is: No one is neutral. We all have our own personal biases, and we form opinions on every situation. These opinions may be very strong (e.g., if the situation strikes a personal chord with us) or just a vague feeling. Nevertheless, the opinion will be there. Some have said that conflict resolution professionals do not have the luxury of opinions, biases and feelings, and we must push them away, firmly tamp them down, sweep them under the rug, or whatever metaphor most aptly describes the mental gymnastics to become that ideal neutral person. I strongly disagree with this strategy. It is akin to telling someone not to think of a blue elephant. There is a better way.
I mentally acknowledge my opinion or bias when I realize I have formed it. This may be very early in the processing of a case, or it may be later. I then remind myself that I am not a decision-maker, I am a process person. Once I have mentally “aired my dirty laundry” as relates to the case, I can more easily put it aside and focus on the process. I got great practice in doing this exercise early in my career when I was doing major environmental mediation and group facilitation. Prior to becoming a mediator, I had extensive education and experience as an environmental scientist. In typical conflict situations between land developers (miners, landfill operators, housing project developers, etc.) and the groups and citizens opposing them, I was able to make educated judgments about disagreements over environmental factors (potential air and water pollution, potential for reclamation, etc.). I kept these to myself. I was able to use my training and experience to constructively guide the conversation and sometimes interpret between the sides, but not to tell anyone he or she was right or wrong on a particular issue – no matter how much I knew about that issue. My credibility with both sides was thus maintained and everyone felt heard.
I have been able to successfully use the same strategy with disputes in many other areas, such as public policy, contracts, workplace disputes and the many other unique areas of practice in which I have worked. Once I acknowledge and examine my “blue elephants”, I can to put them away. However, I have one “blue elephant” that is not so easily be banished, so I do not practice in that area. For various reasons, I seem to have an innate bias toward the women in domestic cases, whether it involves parenting issues, or not – and, through experience, I know that acknowledging it does not let me put it away. This does not hamper me in running a program where over two hundred mediators work on several hundred of these cases per year. I am a supervisor and mentor (and at arm’s length) for those cases. Distance is of great assistance in these cases. I simply do not mediate these cases, myself.
In my next article about this topic, I will deal with how I have coped with the parties’ perception about my neutrality.