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Confirmation Bias: Something Mediators Need to Appreciate

As far as I can tell, much of the research on how neural functions affect mediation has been done in the last 20 years. This research seems to reconfirm the experiences of mediators. In short, mediators have been successful, but now we know more about the psychological side of the reasons for success.

An area that might be of interest is that of impasse. Some impasses are really difficult and when mediators experience a major breakthrough they aren’t sure why. For me mediation is part science and part art. A good analogy could be that though we may know and apply the science of landscape painting well, the success of our art is quantitatively and qualitatively measured. Keep this in mind while I try to explain the following.

Research has revealed what it calls Confirmation Bias. These are perceptions that are so imbedded in minds that they are difficult to let go or change and can even resist accepting the perceptions of others. People may be unaware of the impact that these are having on themselves or their relations with others. As mediators we have to be aware of this phenomenon.

A good analogy of these neural stimuli might be a bucket full of hardened clay. How can the clay be softened so that it is malleable. This hardened clay might be part of a person’s self-identity. This is heady stuff.

How do mediators stimulate an inclusive dialogue when such neural stimuli create an impasse? The terms slowly and gently come to mind. Good dialogue may require a reshuffle of a lifetime of perceptions. The mediator can’t bring about the change. The person has to voluntarily make it. The mediator’s catalysts to reach understanding are empathy, courteous curiosity, integrity and being completely non-judgmental. These are reinforced by the skillful use of inclusive communication’s behaviors and skills.

There are two important steps. First the person has to realize that the mediator identifies with their anguish (empathy). This is often a slow and tedious process. In violent situations it may start by simply taking control of the situation with strong yet gentle words and actions. Over time and openness the participant appreciates that the mediator is really open to her/his perceptions. This recognition by the participant opens the door to the mediator’s catalytic actions. This second step is a logical systematic dialogue for reaching common understanding. It takes patience, being non-judgmental, respectful/courteous and searching with the awareness and acceptance that the outcome might be a complete surprise. It’s a journey of discovery and understanding with the hope of healing.

I hope the above has helped you to understand the importance of accepting the influence of perceptions during inclusive communication. They can open or close doors to understanding. If you’ve been thinking in terms of the participants only, rethink by including yourself, the mediator. Denying our often latent perceptions risks our ability to be non-judgmental. Accepting the implications of our perceptions can free mediators to help others reach common understandings. Note that I haven’t offered specifics. These would have taken away from the persona of the mediator. We have to be authentic. I’m open to comment.


Charlie Young

Charlie Young was raised and educated in MA, and was ordained a priest for the Baker City Oregon Diocese.  Charlie served as a priest in the Baker diocese from 1958 to 1977 and was an assistant pastor and pastor and the Director of the Office of Religious Education from 1971-77.… MORE >

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