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Borderlines: Neutrality on the Edges of Mediation

If mediators had an equivalent of the Scouting Oath, it would be (to mix metaphors) our Four Noble Truths, recited to each new set of parties we work with:  “This process is Voluntary and Self-Determined; we are Neutral, and everything said here is Confidential.” 

Of these, Neutrality (or Impartiality, but that term leads to another conversation) is the most distinctive to our field.  Many professions espouse confidentiality, voluntariness and self-determination – your physician, for example, when advising on the alternatives for treatment.  But a physician, an attorney, a counselor, and many others may, and often do, give direct or implied advice.              In the past three years I have been exploring several modalities of conflict management that reject not only the terms neutrality and impartiality, but the suitability of that principle.  This piece describes my learning and my tentative conclusions.

Restorative Justice and Prisoner Re-Entry Mediation are two forms of conflict work often practiced by mediators and involving many of the same skills as mediation.

In both RJ and Re-Entry, the mediator or facilitator has both a process and an outcome bias toward one of the individuals.  As The Big Book of Restorative Justice says, RJ’s “Central focus [is] victim needs and offender responsibility for repairing harm.” The offender is encouraged to reflect on and examine their behavior, but though that process may lead to positive change in the offender, the goal is to reach an agreement satisfactory to the harmed person.  The capacities and situation of the offender may be taken into consideration, but the aim is to see that the harmed party is “made whole.”

Prisoner Re-Entry takes the opposite approach. Here the incarcerated person is supported in deciding how he or she can successfully rejoin society and avoid further offenses.  Other parties – partners, family, friends – are there to learn how they can help the offender carry out these plans.  If, for example, the incarcerated person wants to remain drug-free, the partner or other family member may be asked to join in becoming  and staying clean, or at least to refrain from bringing temptation home.  In this work, Re-Entry takes a radical approach toward self-determination: the Prime Directive for mediators is to list every proposal the prisoner makes, without reaction and without ever offering their own suggestions.

Finally, in my academic studies, and in recent work as a facilitator for Anna Deavere Smith’s Theater project “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education” ( I learned the approach called Transformative Facilitation.  Unlike the previous two methodologies, this technique does not favor specific individuals, but aims at producing insights or shifts, almost always in a particular direction. 

For example, the leader of a college discussion on a social issue — racism, gender bias, homophobia, etc. – offers, or perhaps tries to evoke, different reactions to an overly biased statement than to an expression of concern about prejudiced behavior.  After leading “Notes From the Field” discussions, our team of facilitators would regularly debrief  how they managed a difficult contribution.  In my own case, a person announced that he’d been reading a book and observed that black people “had it a lot worse during slavery.”  My response was to ask, with a look around at the whole group, “How do you think someone might feel if you said people like them used to have it worse?”  One participant replied, “They might feel you were dismissing their concern.”  That said, we moved on. 

This doesn’t mean that the mediator or facilitator is indifferent to the other party’s needs or perspectives, only that the process has a goal to which other  aims are secondary.  A good mediator tries not to alienate anyone, but unlike a neutral, may overtly suggest the limitations of a perspective, contention, or proposal.

When I first came upon these views, particularly in facilitation, I had an almost reflexive objection, wondering how the term facilitation could be applied to significantly opposed approaches.  Gradually, though, I came to see that even the most neutral conflict work expresses a bias toward harmony and resolution, and considers some self-determined decisions beyond the pale.  (in a scene in The Social Network, an aggrieved contributor to the design of Facebook says of Mark Zuckerberg, “I want an injunction, I want compensatory damages, and I want him dead.”  Our mediation class in 2011 agreed that the last demand was inappropriate and legally unenforceable.)

Challenges abound for the conflict specialist  working in these areas: not imposing a personal view as the only correct one, balancing respect and understanding for all parties with what might be called a superordinate goal, leading rather than driving the participants in a particular direction.

Finally, these three modalities have one thing in common: whether they are repairing the effects of an anti-social action while avoiding a criminal indictment; reducing recidivism and helping an ex-offender live again in society, or making a group of people aware of a social injustice, and perhaps more willing to confront and ameliorate it, they each seek a positive, and often far-reaching , future effect.  That prospect seems worth setting aside neutrality.



Richard Barbieri

Dr. Richard Barbieri is a board member of the Association for Conflict Resolution and Managing Editor of the journal ACResolution.  He is past president of the New England Association for Conflict Resolution and the Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program. MORE >

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