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Bias in Mediation

For mediators to maintain an unbiased perspective, especially in the heat of mediation, is challenging! Biases stem from values developed by connections to culture, identity, race, ethnicity, territory and religious beliefs. In a vast ocean of human possibilities, adopting values is central in the web that weaves the fabric of behavior and belonging. The value of a bias is in its validation and protection of our core beliefs.

What�s a mediator to do when a bias, based on deeply rooted values, hits the table? How does a person suspend their values in light of a party�s beliefs?

The first step is to identify biases and body cues that signal the activation of a bias. The second step is to develop ways to respond when biases come out to play during mediation. The third step is to give yourself a break if you miss an opportunity to identify a bias and the forth step is to pat yourself on the back if any of the first three steps are accomplished.

Step #1: Identify your biases and body cues:

Take out your biases. Put them on the table and look at them. Are they a problem for you or the parties? Ask yourself, when are your biases most likely to appear? A bias will often be activated when the extreme of its opposite value appears, resulting in a physical reaction. For example: I have a bias against religious fanaticism as my spiritual path naturally leans toward Darwinian Taoism. Perhaps you, dear reader, can imagine the complexities that arose during the following mediation concerning a parenting plan between this now separated couple with a seven year old son.

Upon arrival, the man first placed a bible firmly on the table. The woman refused to be in the same room with him, due to her stated previous abuse by this man. We all agreed on �shuttle� mediation. The father wanted to spend more time with their son, especially on Sundays to take him to church. The mother was concerned that the father was punishing their son with a �sin and you go to hell� and a �spare the rod, spoil the child� mentality. In regard to religion, I am biased toward nonviolence and freedom of choice. When the super-religious father appeared as the extreme opposite of my bias, a physical reaction occurred in which the heat in my head and my heart became extreme. My bias had hit the table like a ton of bricks!

Other physical cues to identify when a bias comes out to play include:

  • Restriction in breathing
  • Muscle tensing or twitching
  • Nerve tingling or a creepy crawly feeling within the skin
  • Irritability
  • A hot, cold or clammy sensation
  • Nausea
  • Increased heart rate.

Some wise people say that the wisdom of the body and the mind stems from the heart. Attention to body cues is essential to the mediator who tries to consciously practice impartiality during mediation. Body sensation is body intelligence. Listen to your body. It doesn�t lie.

Step #2: Ways to respond to a bias, when identified:

Take a break, 3-D breathe (see instructions below) and possibly share your experience with a co-mediator, if you have one.

  • Shift your body weight in your chair to reposition your body attitude in relationship to the new information you have just received from your body cues and 3-D breathe your way through the process until the body sensation subsides.
  • Consciously suspend your bias and tell yourself you will deal with it later. Write a �confidential� note to self about it.
  • If appropriate briefly tell the parties, either in open session or in caucus, about your bias and how you are responding to it. Consider asking the party to let you know if they have any sense of you not being impartial, due to your bias. This more radical approach may empower the parties and equalize the playing field, leaving no elephants in the room or secrets under the table, from a mediator�s perspective.

In the above mentioned body reaction to my bias in relationship to one of the parties religious perspective when raising a child: I took a break, did some 3D breathing, wrote a note to self about my �issue� to read later and told my co-mediator about my experience. It did not seem appropriate, under the circumstances, to share my bias with either or both parties. However, my co-mediator and I did venture more deeply into the potential child abuse issue with the parties and the child protection laws.

Step #3. Ways to give yourself a break after a missed opportunity:

Self reflect in writing, art or movement to see, feel and move the experience through your being. Create a strategy for self that shift/shapes a new perspective, when a bias emerges in future.

Step #4. Ways to acknowledge your accomplishments:

Use any or all of the following, including your rendition of personal appreciation.

  • Tell a friend who appreciates you and does not �self reference� your achievements.
  • Treat yourself to ice cream, a massage, a favorite walk with nature in the woods or by the sea, a long and luscious kiss with your sweetheart, a hot bath, a cold shower-even this can feel terrific-a special meal, and/or a great movie you have been planning to see, including whatever your bias may be for self indulgence.
Incidentally, upon returning home from the mediation mentioned above that so challenged my bias, I lay in a hot bath while eating a cold ice cream cone filled with my favorite orange sherbet. Talk about opposites! My �self help� therapy worked, while I reflected on the �do�s and don�ts� of mediation, and I let the mediation go down the drain with the bathwater.

To conclude, without belonging to something such as our values and the connections they make for us, we are at sea in a vast world without end… However remaining flexible rather than rigid, especially during mediation, is the challenge. Values can and do shift/shape through deep reflection and psychological expansion.

When you experience an unpleasant body sensation in mediation consider it a gift from a party to you to remind you of your biased opinion concerning the opposite of your present position. It is also a gift in that it offers you the opportunity to live up to your own bias/value of respect for each person�s freedom to choose his or her own values and beliefs. For an unbiased mediation, your position needs to take a back seat to honor the party�s position. Playing the role of a mediator, the challenge is yours to take or to leave. 3-D Breathing: Count on the inhale, hold 1.2. and 1.2.3 4 on the exhale, hold 1.2. On the inhale, imagine your whole torso is filled with air like a giant balloon: up/down in the vertical dimension, forward/back in the sagital dimension and side/side in the horizontal dimension. Slowly let your breath out as if the air is being released from the balloon. Repeat this 3-D inhale and exhale several times. 3-D breathing will oxygenate your system and create �internal space� in which your organs can move. 3-D breathing can be done discreetly during mediation and in a larger fashion when you take a break or complete mediation.

Special thanks for reviews and comments on this article by mediation colleagues, Chris Koser and Albie Davis. Chris is the director of the Seattle Federal Executive Board in Seattle, Washington. Albie is one of the founding mothers of Community Mediation and is interviewed in Deborah Kolb�s book: When Talk Works.

Copyright: Creating Well-Being 2005. All Rights Reserved.


Ana Schofield

In 2001, Ana Schofield began a Master's degree in Conflict Resolution via Antioch University McGregor in Yellow Springs, Ohio and graduated in 2003. During this time, she became certified as a mediator. Now Ana weaves her work experience together as she maintains a private practice in Olympia, Washington that offers creative… MORE >

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