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 […]