Misconceptions about Mediation when Dealing with Organizational and Community Conflict

The First in a Series of Three Articles

Harold Tessendorf

During my recent work advising organizations and communities in conflict, I have encountered several common misconceptions about mediation.  These collude to prevent parties from reaching a negotiated agreement.  In this first of three articles about mediation, I share three misconceptions and explain what is driving them. 

The first misconception is that mediators must be neutral. The term “neutral” is commonly associated with court-mandated mediation where the judge mandates that the parties seek outside mediation before hearing and adjudicating the case.  Mediators are called “neutral” because they are unrelated to the parties and have no material stake in the outcome.

Neutrality is more difficult to achieve when conflicts involve organizations and communities.  This is especially true when the mediator comes from within the larger organization or lives in the same community.  The closer the mediator is to the conflict, the more likely it is that they are concerned with and have an opinion about it.  Since mediators have a desire to see that these conflicts are better managed, they are also more inclined to want to limit the disruption from these conflicts.    

It is more reasonable for parties to expect that mediators act impartially. Impartiality does not mean neutrality.  Instead, it means that mediators look at the bigger picture and treat all parties fairly while assisting them to negotiate agreements.  This fairness helps the parties to trust and accept the mediators.

The second misconception arises when mediators are confused with advocates.  In many conflicts, parties fail to choose a mediator because they are looking for a third party who will intercede on their behalf, adjudicate in their favor, and punish the other side.  This leads their opponent to question the mediator’s motives and reject the offer to mediate. 

This leads to the third misconception, namely that of the solo mediator.  The mediator is viewed as a superhero.  Again, this misconception owes its origins to the parties’ experience of the judicial system where a judge hears the case and then decides in favor of one of the parties.  We can also trace this misconception to our childhoods when we had a dispute with our sibling.  We appealed to a parent to settle this disagreement and expected that they would do so in our favor. 

Organizational and community mediation is strengthened when the parties engage a panel of mediators instead of relying on a single mediator. This increases the likelihood that the parties will reach agreement.   

What drives these misconceptions is the way in which the parties understand conflict. Since parties to a conflict feel aggrieved, they come to view their conflict as being win-lose. They do not want to be the first to compromise as they fear that this will be interpreted as weakness and loss.  They do not want to admit that some of their actions may have contributed to the present conflict.  This leads to an impasse. 

In the next article, I will explore what mediation is and is not before exploring co-mediation in the third and final article in this series.  As a teaser, mediators allow parties to explore their conflict together and then generate options which allow the parties to negotiate an agreement that they design, own, and implement.   

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