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Mediation Perspectives: Temptations of a Mediator I

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Mediation Perspectives is a periodic blog entry that’s provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts. To keep up to date with the Mediation Support Team, you can sign up to their newsletter here.

As mediators, we need to be highly flexible and context oriented. It is therefore sometimes easier to focus on what we should not do than what we should do. This focus on the “not” provides more than just parameters in which one can move freely, it also increases an awareness of ‘orange zones’ where we have to be careful as we may end up in a red zone where one can do more harm than good. Lakhdar Bramhimi and Salman Ahmed provide a fantastic write up of this kind of approach in “Seven Deadly Sins of a Mediator.” In particular, the sins Brahimi and Ahmed describe are ignorance, arrogance, partiality, impotence, haste, inflexibility and false promises.

On a micro mediation level, there are several lures or “temptations” to which mediators typically succumb. While these temptations may not exactly lead to sins, we should be aware of them and practice resisting them. Or if we do give in to them, we should have good reasons for doing so, rather than giving in as a result of habit. We explore these temptations, giving some tentative ideas on how to resist them, as well as indicating when it is OK to “sin”.

Our discussion of mediation temptations is divided into two. In this first blog, we discuss temptations that pull the mediator in one direction. These may be very hard to resist, but the pull direction is clear. In the second blog, we address temptations that pull the mediator in two directions, meaning all titles of the topics covered have an “or” in the title. It is as though one is walking on a tight rope, when one has to make the challenging choice between two seeming opposites or extremes.

1. Have the answers

People in conflict approach mediators to help them resolve their disputes. Sometimes they ask the mediator to tell them what to do to solve the conflict they are facing. This can result from a genuine effort to find the golden bullet that ends the pain of conflict, but it can also be a manipulative move, where party A just aims to get the mediator on its side.  The mediator can then do the dirty work of convincing party B that party A were right. For the mediator, coming from outside the conflict, it may also be blatantly obvious what the answer is. Having the answer and solving the problem makes mediators feel a bit like God. One has done something good, and that is a good feeling. The problem with such answers, even the best ones, is of course that the parties to the conflict do not own them. It is likely both sides will not accept them, it is likely the answers will disempower the parties, and it is therefore likely that the great solution will fail.

Ben: “I do sometimes suggest solutions or options but I never impose them. The question is how to do this, and often the best place is during a caucus with one party, rather than at the table with all parties. If it is done at the table, it is important that the suggested solution does not come across as being partial and that it does not undermine the parties’ sense of ownership.”

This is why mediators learn to HELP parties negotiate their own answers to the conflict, rather than delivering the answer to the parties, even on a golden platter. If mediators have answers, it should be on the process level, on the HOW of negotiation, and not on the content level – the WHAT of the conflict. Mediators should not provide answers to the conflict.

To make things more complicated, even when mediators only provide answers on the process level, one still has to be careful not to suggest just the mediation process when other processes may be more effective or suitable, such as legal procedures. Mediators may sometimes recognize the kind of power asymmetry that questions the viability of mediation. For example, they may detect an imbalance of negotiation skills or asymmetric knowledge about the content of the conflict between the parties. Continuing mediation in such a situation is dangerous. Rather than proceeding, the power or knowledge asymmetry must first be addressed even if it takes time, effort and possibly other actors or processes. For instance, external experts can be used and training can be provided before resuming mediation. However, such measures cannot be addressed directly in the mediation setting. So rather than providing the answers, the goal is to be clear about your role and bring in others when you have reached your limits.

2. Take sides

Mediators need to be accepted by the parties to do their work. This acceptance, or consent by both parties to the process of mediation and the person of the mediator, is key to the mediator’s role and effectiveness. Being impartial is key to this acceptance. The temptation, however, is to take sides. This may be because we feel one side has a more legitimate cause, has committed fewer violations of human rights, and thinks and perceives the world in a similar way to us. One may also take sides or be judgmental when overcompensating in response to the concern that one might favor the party that is more similar to oneself.

Simon: “I once mediated in an interpersonal dispute between a younger person (same age as me) and someone who was older, and found myself tending to take the side of the younger person, who was easier to relate to. I remember thinking to myself: “Are the young not always suppressed by the older generation? So is it not only correct to support them more?” Of course, I was wrong.

In political conflicts, it is easy for a mediator to “get married to the cause” of one or the other side – normally, it is easier to sympathize with the weaker side. A number of things can be done to avoid this temptation. One of the easiest ways is to co-mediate, something that can help the different members of the mediation team balance out each other’s individual weakness and biases. In conflicts between cultural or religious worldviews, the idea of “Culturally Balanced Co-Mediation” may be even more important. Another approach is to try to put into practice the basic assumption of mediation that good motivations may lie behind all behavior, and that understanding such reasons helps us be more impartial. So rather than taking sides, one should aim to be impartial and remain so.

3. Be uncomfortable with silence

When there is tension in the room, it can be very tempting to say something, anything, to ease the tension. This temptation may be driven by the need to have the answer or just avoid the depth of emotions that lie in the silence. But people often say great things after a moment of silence. We need silence to tap into our own reflections and inner processes. Often, we wait for people to take a breather to interrupt them, and we miss the golden moment when they gather the courage to speak more openly. They are testing us: “Can I be vulnerable? If this person does not even give me a breathing space, they are not ready for my wisdom”. Watching body language can help, as can avoiding tricky discussions via email or on the phone.

We may also avoid silence because we are uncomfortable with the rat race of thoughts in our own mind. The practice of Meditation for Mediation can be helpful here. If we can calm our own thoughts and empty ourselves of our own preoccupations, we may also be more comfortable with silence and listening to the people we are with. So, rather than talking too much, the goal is to feel at ease with silence.

4. Need to be successful by reaching an agreement

A sophisticated version of “having the answer” relates to the pressure to provide the best process to help the parties reach an agreement at all costs. Here, the mediator does not set out to provide the answer on the content level or a solution to the conflict. Instead, this temptation relates to the paradox that the mediator starts to want an agreement more than the parties, which can lead to the parties comfortably sitting back to see what the mediator will do for them. The temptation to succeed is deeply human and can lead to good things, but it can be detrimental in mediation. It may also drive the mediator to continue the mediation process even when it is over and when they are no longer needed. Knowing when to hand over or exit a process is challenging, but may at times be necessary. How can we learn to practice modesty but also not mistake this for passivity or even victimhood?

Ben: “I need to be able to look in the mirror and feel I have tried my best. But I can fly to the moon and back, I can spill my guts, and people may still not be happy and may still not have reached an agreement. I have to accept this – try hard, but not get attached to the results.”

5. Praise to manipulate

We know how genuine appreciation is key to good relations and high motivation. Marriage counselors and football coaches are starting to tell their clients that the balance of criticism and appreciation should not be 50/50, but more like 30/70 or even 20/80. The temptation is to start using this kind of appreciation, but for the purposes of getting something ourselves. As mediators, we are trained to build on the positive, to strengthen those moments of cooperation between the parties that we want to work on to move forward.  This is good, and if we are being honest it can work. But it is easy to see how this can lead to situations where we start praising parties to manipulate them into taking a certain direction. So, rather than diplomatic bullshitting, the goal is to be honest and clear about our motives and in our communication.

In the next blog on “Temptations of a mediator”, we will look at temptations where the mediator is pulled in two directions, and has to find a balance between them.


About the Authors

Ben Hoffman is a specialist in negotiation, mediation and peacebuilding and founder of the Canadian International Institute of Applied Negotiation.

Simon J. A. Mason is a senior researcher and head of the Mediation Support Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) ETH Zurich.

For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit the CSS website.

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