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 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.