To finish the discussion about mediator neutrality (or impartiality – an equivalent term for purposes of this discussion), I’d like to discuss how a conflict resolution professional might react when his neutrality is challenged during a long-term, multi-party mediation or facilitation. This has happened to me more than once doing environmental/public policy work. These challenges have been made, for the most part, for strategic reasons. Simply withdrawing from the case was never really an option (as one might do for a limited, one-meeting case).
In many complex, multi-party mediations, one or more of the parties are fighting a delaying action and do not want the negotiations to result in a compromise or consensus agreement. They want the other side to lose, pure and simple. If the mediator has to deal with complicating factors (beyond simply managing productive meetings), the process will become more cumbersome, it will slow down and may ultimately stall from its own inertia. One complicating factor is an accusation that the mediator is biased toward one side of the dispute or another. Such an accusation may be made to the other members of the group, to the mediator’s superiors and, perhaps most seriously, to the press. Any mediator who wishes to continue facilitating the group’s discussions must respond effectively to the challenge without actively engaging the party making it.
I’ll start with the challenge to the group. Since I spent several years as a neutral who was paid by County government, parties sometimes charged me with advancing the county planning agenda. The county and I had anticipated this situation by putting me outside the chain of command of the planning department. My direct supervisor was an upper level county manager who was also the superior of the planning director. Although this gave me some buffering from this charge, a better way to answer it was to simply put it to the group as a whole and ask them if they felt I was other than neutral in my approach to the group. I am happy to say that this approach worked for me. The groups as a whole (aside from the one party challenging me) always supported me as a neutral, and the discussions continued.
Next is the challenge to a superior. My best story about this involved a group convened to discuss the possible addition of a new access road to an already approved and operating rock quarry. At the very first meeting, a member of the group who lived near the quarry said: “We’re here to shut you down”. I politely but firmly corrected her, letting her know that neither our facilitated process nor any later decision by the County Commissioners could have that result, since the operator was only asking for an amendment to his zoning, not approval for a new operation. The woman who wanted to shut down the quarry complained to my supervisor the next day. She said that I was obviously biased in favor of the quarry operator. Based on the doctrine of “no surprises to your boss”, I forewarned my supervisor of the potential complaint. When he received it, he was able to ask the proper questions of the complainant and clarify my role for her. The group discussions continued.
Finally, challenges made through the press. A calm, reasoned process is simply no fun for the media. Contentious debates make news. So, when a vocal leader of the citizen opponents to a proposed gravel quarry sought out the press and accused me of being “an agent for developers”, the reporter immediately called me to say: “Party X says you’re an agent for developers – not really a neutral mediator. What do you say to that?” (Remember, conflict makes headlines and rational discussion is boring.) I had only one course open to me. I replied that Party X was certainly entitled to his opinion, but that I was simply trying my best to help everyone communicate with each other, without showing favoritism to anyone. I suggested to the reported that she contact my supervisor (whom I knew would back me up) and/or other members of the group (most of whom would back me up) for their opinions of my behavior as a neutral. I like to think that my reasoned response was the reason she did not pursue the matter further. Again, the group discussions continued.
So, we can see that a conflict resolution professional must not only act in a way that conveys his neutrality – often he must actively defend it.