Impartiality is one of the more commonly recognised aspects of the role of the Mediator.
This does not mean that the Mediator should somehow become inhuman and not have a feeling of bias towards one party or another, but that they practice in a way that minimises any manifestation of this bias.
This article is written by Alan Sharland, Director of CAOS Conflict Management, London, UK
This is an important distinction to make. No-one can genuinely claim to be impartial, but they can continually review their own feelings and thoughts about someone or a situation in order to acknowledge this and then monitor, and adjust where necessary, their practice as a mediator in the light of this awareness.
Similarly, anyone supporting people in dispute will be more effective if they maintain their impartiality in the situation, even if one of the people involved is someone they know.
There can be a temptation to automatically 'take sides' when we know someone who is in dispute but ultimately this often just entrenches that person even more in their despair, anger, disillusionment etc. and can make them less likely to be able to resolve it.
One of the reasons for this is that, as they have now persuaded us of their 'victimhood', it makes it difficult for them to then try to resolve their dispute as it can seem like they are backing down or 'showing weakness' and so they will not want to lose face.
Hence impartiality serves a purpose in supporting conflict resolution whether we are a mediator or not.
In mediation and in other conflict resolution support, striving for impartiality means that the process of resolution is untainted by the Mediator’s biases and prejudices, so that the disputants can focus on resolving their own concerns rather than have to respond to ‘input’ from the mediator.
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The mediator creates a channel for communication and not an obstacle to it and remaining impartial allows for the channel to be as unimpeded as possible. The challenges that mediators face in maintaining impartiality will be unique to each mediator.
Some mediators may hate to see people who use aggressive or angry language and if a mediator is affected by this and one of the parties they mediate acts in this way, the challenge for the mediator will be to acknowledge any such bias and be wary of using any leading questions, advice, or opinions which may reflect this and hence affect their impartiality.
Alternatively a mediator may see an elderly lady who feels intimidated by a young man who lives next to her and feel protective towards her. It is quite possible that the lady is very much able to draw upon the rescuing inclinations of sympathisers in her situation by portraying the frustrated young man as aggressive. However, her complaining about various issues to outside agencies such as the Police or local authority, rather than attempting to resolve it directly with the young man, escalates the dispute.
I am not saying she 'should' resolve it directly if she feels intimidated, just that the consequences of involving outside agencies can be to keep the dispute going or even escalate it. Often the rescuing of the agencies can lead to them telling her not to speak to the neighbour rather than support her in doing so. This is not an impartial handling of the situation, and if there is no evidence of a law being broken or other legislation, it is therefore inappropriate.
A mediator (or agency representative) who is not aware of his/her bias towards the elderly lady will potentially cause the young man to feel more and more isolated and resentful that his concerns are being ignored simply because of their different ages and gender rather than on the basis of any actual inappropriate behaviour. In this way the mediator has lost his/her impartiality and thus becomes less effective at supporting resolution of the conflict.
Similar issues can arise even where we are not acting as a mediator but are becoming involved in a dispute, whether as someone trying to help, or as one of the disputants.
The contribution of impartiality to Effective Communication can be seen if we consider our own biases, prejudices and preconceptions:
Do we pay more (or less!) attention to someone.....
- If they are dressed smartly?
- If they speak with a particular accent?
- If they are of a certain age, race, gender?
Do we take more or less trouble to make our point clearly depending on the above?
Only we can know if we fail to receive communication effectively or fail to communicate to others more conscientiously depending on different features of the people we are communicating with. The extent of our impartiality will influence the effectiveness of our communication.
And ultimately it is only ourselves who can make a commitment to acknowledging and acting upon this. If we do, there are consequences. If we don’t there are different consequences.
It’s our choice. We own that decision, and no-one else can.
However, acknowledging where we are not being impartial doesn’t mean we then have to beat ourselves up over it. It means accepting it and choosing to change. It's ok to make mistakes.
If we criticise ourselves, it means we are less likely to want to acknowledge when we are biased towards or against someone or something and so we don't then learn from it.
Similarly, when others criticise us for having biases a similar outcome occurs. This is the cause of a lot of resentment and guilt that inhibits our capacity to deal with prejudice.
When it is seen as a ‘bad’ thing to have a prejudicial view. It leads people to reject any suggestion that their actions or views may be prejudicial as they will be at risk of condemnation.
When we can learn to acknowledge that we have such thoughts we are more likely to change them instead of trying to sweep them under the carpet. This is in keeping with a no-blame approach to our communication and conflict resolution. It applies to us as well!
How often do we hear people make a racist statement for example and then ‘prove’ that they cannot be racist as "Some of my best friends are black/white/Chinese/etc.".
I would argue that they are no more racist than any of us but are being forced to be defensive against the condemnation that they are racist. Instead of challenging the behaviour and not the person, they are being challenged and labelled.
We all exhibit behaviours and use language that could be described as racist or sexist or homophobic or ageist or sizeist etc. but it can often feel 'unsafe' to acknowledge it with others. Or if someone does, they will often belittle its importance in order to avoid the guilt or condemnation that can ensue when someone is ‘accused’ of being prejudiced.
I once heard a woman say that it is impossible for women to be sexist as that is only something that men ‘do’ to women. I don’t like to analyse people’s motivations and intentions too often as they can affect my ability to be impartial but as I wasn’t mediating this woman, my guess at the time was that she had experienced such pain from sexism towards her that she found it very difficult to acknowledge it in herself.
When stereotyping is seen as 'bad' rather than natural behaviour, it is frequently the case that people respond defensively rather than openly when something they say is questioned on the basis of it being a stereotype. This rarely leads to learning and often leads to resentment.
When our striving towards learning and greater connection with others becomes a motive for achieving impartiality and is achieved through open discussion then the effectiveness of our communication and our ability to resolve conflict effectively is also enhanced.
An exercise I have sometimes used on training courses for mediators is called ‘Does he take sugar?’. One of the benefits of the exercise is that it promotes self awareness with regard to how we see others, and how this can affect our impartiality.
The exercise involves the following:
Participants pair up and are asked to give an answer to a question about each other. For example, they will be asked "does your partner take sugar in their tea/ coffee?" They will both then give an answer without discussing whether the answer is correct or not.
They then split up and find another partner and this time they may be asked a question such as "Which newspaper does this person read?". This is repeated for a few more questions such as "What kind of music does this person like?", "What sport does this person play?" etc. At no time are the answers discussed.
We then discuss as a group what came up for people in the exercise. Mostly people find it funny and a bit awkward making such snap decisions about people and then saying them out loud. Occasionally people feel quite upset by the answers given about them, but usually their experience is one of amused interest.
This is quite significant because actually most of us are constantly answering similar questions in our own heads all the time when we meet people and are coming up with our own answers without checking with the people we meet whether our assumptions are correct or not.
And as with the exercise it is fairly unpredictable which assumptions, if known, would upset the person we are making them about, and which ones would not. It is a very personal reaction.
(To anyone who considers that it is entirely predictable which assumptions will upset people, I would ask that you consider whether you are speaking for yourself or claiming to speak for others.)
It is not possible to establish what stereotyping statements will upset people, as something that upsets one person will not necessarily upset another. This is why the ‘Political Correctness’ movement was seen by many to be very patronising and self-righteous as you can’t make generalisations about what is offensive and what is not – it can be a very personal thing.
It is also why many people were upset when (often white) people criticised the use of nursery rhymes such as ‘Baa Baa Black sheep’ as being offensive to black people. Also, more recently the banning of Christmas messages in some organisations’ cards….. at Christmas!... because they 'would be offensive to non-Christians'.
The Rescuing practice here is of assuming we know what will or will not offend particular groups, by speaking for them, without checking with them if it is actually the case that an action or phrase is offensive to them.
Instead of increasing mutual understanding it often leads to resentment of those being 'protected' (Rescued) as it feels like previous liberties are being taken away without any understanding of why.
We are all constantly making assumptions about people and often we will not consider which ones are accurate and which are not.
What this inevitably means is that sometimes we will make assumptions about people, and if they become known to them, through our words or our actions, there is a chance they will be upset.
It is at this point that we can choose to ‘justify’ and defend our assumption, or belittle their reaction – actions which are more likely to happen if we are confronted aggressively for making it.
Or we can accept that our assumption is not accurate and learn to revise it - which is more likely to happen if we and the person ‘assumed about’ are willing to understand that assumptions are made all the time and we sometimes make mistakes and get them wrong.
It is then an opportunity for learning and greater closeness and connection between the people involved.
Often however, it leads to a great distancing and separation - particularly with regard to assumptions based on race and gender, and more particularly assumptions about Black and Asian people and about women. I am puzzled by the basis for these areas being more aggressively challenged than many other assumptions.
If there is an argument that historically there has been a greater impact from these, then I would want to point out that to respond aggressively is the least effective way of challenging it.
Instead of it leading to learning and connection, it leads to denial and defensiveness and ‘hidden’ expressions of the assumptions so that the negative impact continues.
A more open challenging of any assumption (rather than a labelling of the person) on the understanding that we all continuously, even unconsciously, do it, is more likely to be effective in challenging the stereotype.
I mean, the condemnation approach hasn't been that effective so far has it? That is because it is another means of conflict suppression, which, in turn, is conflict avoidance.
That old boiling pot with the lid on that will always boil over one day.
I relate these aspects of our behaviour to impartiality as it is only when we recognise these inclinations towards bias and are willing to acknowledge them in ourselves, that we are able to maintain impartiality when we are communicating with people or supporting them in resolving their destructive conflict.
And even, more challengingly, it allows us to be aware of our biases when we are in a destructive conflict, which allows us to take a greater level of ownership of our own actions, thoughts and feelings in connection with it.
Impartiality plays a crucial role in all of the skills used to practice effective communication - to see how, go to: Listening, Summarising and Questioning - and it underpins all effective conflict resolution.
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