The Future of Neutrality in the Field of Mediation: Empowering Participants, the Process, and the Mediator

Acton_Future of Neutrality in the Mediation Field

The inspiration for the name of this blog, my research into neutrality led me to discover that not only is neutrality likely not humanly possible, but may also be a disservice to our clients.

Neutrality Word Cloud

Neutrality is often considered the defining pillar of the mediation field, with mediators even being referred to as “neutrals.” However, absolute neutrality quickly becomes problematic when its purported role is recognized as being oversimplified, misleading, unattainable, and most concerning, potentially counterproductive for conflict resolution. Furthermore, when neutrality is seen through social justice and cultural lenses, even deeper concerns arise over the normative values assumed in a neutral process and the potential role neutrality can play in oppressing and marginalizing the wide diversity of participants the field claims to be able to serve.  In response to the deconstruction and analysis of neutrality, a new spectrum of non-neutral approaches is being developed.  These include social justice mediation, discursive mediation, and approaches like positive neutrality and mutual partiality that together can be understood under the umbrella concept of balanced mediation. Across this spectrum of opportunities, a handful of methods, tools, and recommendations arise from this discussion that have the potential to greatly improve and advance the field of mediation.  However, if a mediator is unable to shed traditional views of absolute neutrality then these potential benefits for the resolution process, the creation of positive social change, the empowerment of participants, and even the empowerment of the self-identity of the mediator can be undermined and unrealized.

This research reveals that the role of neutrality, as traditionally conceived, in the conflict resolution field clearly needs to be reexamined and reformed. There is also a second equally clear conclusion that those concepts closely linked to and deriving from neutrality, such as fairness, balance, equidistance, and mutual partiality are essential for the practice of mediation to be respected as a process of conflict resolution.  This represents a new challenge in conflict resolution, that of balancing an evolving understanding of “neutrality” with the goals of party self-determination and empowerment.  More than likely, the answer to this challenge will lie in the self-awareness of the individual mediator through a process such as “critical self-consciousness” (Nagai-Rothe, 2010). As Taylor notes, the skill of knowing when and how to intervene without compromising the entire effort towards resolution is “the hallmark of a reflective and competent practitioner” (qtd. Bailey, 2014).  If we are able to develop that skill we are likely to recognize that our ability as mediators is not reliant on our neutrality, but on our humanity:

“In mediation, there is no judge, no power to decide in anyone other than the parties, no process other than consensus, and no victory other than a rough equality of loss. Both sides have the right to veto any outcome they perceive as unequal. For this reason it is not neutrality that is important, but the ability to reach out, use subjectivity, and deepen empathy and honesty between adversaries.” (qtd. Bailey, 2014)

In moving forward, we must never lose sight of the self-determination of the parties and the power of our own self-awareness—just as the process and agreement the parties desire is their choice, so is the way in which we choose to mediate.

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Quivira Coalition: A Case Study of Collaboration and Paradox

Acton_Quivira Coalition- A Case Study of Collaboration and Paradox in the SW

“You cannot save the land apart from the people or the people apart from the land. To save either, you must save both.” — Wendell Berry

For more than twenty years there has been a standoff between environmentalists and ranchers in the Southwest. At issue is the use of land for grazing cattle, which has long been framed as either cattle or no cattle, with no option in the middle. Amidst this, a small collaborative group called the Quivira Coalition has turned bitter enemies into partners. The small group who started the Quivira Coalition believed that there was truth in both the positions of ranchers and environmentalists — that cattle could be raised in semi-desert rangelands in a sustainable and ecological way.  It would likely be a new way of doing things, a developing art of progressive ranch management, but there was potential for it to succeed. Against all odds, the Quivira Coalition found a way to help their New Mexican community slowly embrace their contradictions. To understand how they continue to accomplish this feat, this paper first explores the concept of collaboration, then focuses on the case of the Quivira Coalition itself, and finally examines how the group fits into a larger discussion of collaborative organizations.

A paradox tells us that the multiple worldviews that drive us to conflict can all be true simultaneously, and that the multiple identities that make enemies of the other can be part of a larger, more inclusive identity. Both sides of the grazing debate viewed man as external to nature, as needing either to be removed from nature to ensure its preservation or to be above nature to generate wealth from the land.  The profound philosophical differences in these perspectives made it seem impossible to reconcile interests.  However, with a vision for a “New Ranch,” the Quivira Coalition successfully forges a third position in this polarized conflict, demonstrating that this paradox could in fact be restored and managed.  As an action-oriented collaborative, they are a reminder that we must “break down the artificial dichotomy between wilderness and working landscapes, recognize our place in nature, and take responsibility for it” (Sheridan, 2007, p. 134).  Through education, innovation, and a lot of patience, they have shown a community how to embrace their contradictions through a new collaborative mindset, and be stronger and more resilient for it.

Quivira Map

Part of this case study involved creating my own definition for collaboration:

Collaboration is a mindset that embraces learning, values systems thinking, and encourages problem solving by engaging diverse stakeholders in network building and information sharing to foster a sense of shared ownership in the future of a community.

Several key principles are worth highlighting with this definition. First, I present collaboration as not simply a process or even approach but rather a mindset, in order to convey the depth of perspective change required to undertake successful collaborative projects and be a collaborative leader.  This mindset does not start with assumed answers, but instead appreciates that the complexity of situations requires constant learning, constant assessment of the way things fit together, and a constant focus on the potential for future solutions.  Second, the processes of networking and sharing are examples of ongoing relationship building with an honesty that allows stakeholders to focus on underlying issues and values, rather than solely on positions. Finally, collaboration has the potential to do more than implement results or produce a product. If taken far enough, it can fundamentally change a stakeholder’s perception of identity and foster appreciation of both their inclusion in a community and their shared ownership in the future of that community.