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Mediating Divisive Topics


In recent years, the divisions in this country have become increasingly polarized. People’s opinions have become so extreme that we no longer tolerate different opinions or those who embrace them. Many have tried to find a way to discuss these divisive topics but have been disappointed, leading to further polarization and ruptured relationships. There may be a way in mediation to have these difficult conversations on divisive issues like whether or not to vaccinate our children against covid – by first talking about how we’re going to have the discussion and how we’re going to make decisions.


In recent years, the divisions in this country have become increasingly polarized. People no longer just have an opinion; many of us have dived further down the well of our beliefs and become more and more extreme to the point where we don’t tolerate anyone with opinions different from ours. There is no more crossing the aisle. Family members don’t talk to each other. Friends have lost friends. There is no longer space to have a discussion. Minds are not open. 

Many have tried to find a way to bridge this gap, a way to mend fences or live and let live, but they have been disappointed. These discussions have gotten nowhere and have led to arguments, digging in feet, and intolerance. If someone believes differently on an issue, they are now the enemy with no redeeming qualities and nothing you can connect upon with each other. This is a very sad state of affairs. The ruptures in relationships have led to a country that is deeply divided. People can’t work together anymore and don’t want to. This is a dangerous situation as such a huge chasm historically has been resolved by violence more often than not. 

One issue that has this sort of polarization is the covid vaccine. I conducted a mediation recently between divorced parents about this topic. They had a disagreement over whether they should vaccinate their children against covid. This is a very divisive topic with potential for explosions. It didn’t seem likely that we’d get anywhere, much less come to a resolution, given the temperature of the country on this issue. 

As a mediator, I have to be neutral, even when I have a strong opinion about what is being discussed. The discussion isn’t about me. I am not involved in their conflict, and my opinion doesn’t matter. I have learned how to put my feelings aside and be fully present with the parties without inserting my views on any topic under discussion. It is actually quite freeing for me to not judge people or their opinions. 

This mediation was like that. I have a strong opinion about vaccination for covid. I will not tell you what it is here as that is not the point of this essay. But in mediating for these parties, I had to put my own opinion aside and be neutral so that I could be equally present for both parties. 

When we prepared for the mediation, my co-mediator and I decided which client’s opening statement we would each reflect. We decided by the order – he would reflect the first client to speak; I would reflect the second. We didn’t choose who we’d reflect based upon their opinions or ours or by gender or any other factor, and the parties chose which of them would speak first. The way it worked out, my co-mediator reflected back to the client who shared his and my opinion. I ended up reflecting back to the client who had the opinion opposite to mine. I was concerned that my opinion which opposed his might leak out in my facial expressions or tone of voice, but it didn’t, thankfully. I was meticulously neutral and did not even think about my opinion while he was talking. I was able to be fully present with him – listening to find out what was most important to him about this issue. 

Once we finished the opening statements, the parties began to talk together, negotiating about whether they should vaccinate their children. Thankfully, this couple, though divorced, had high respect for each other and communicated very well together. They were very civil and had done a good job of coparenting up until now. That helped tremendously in this mediation. 

After the parties debated this for a while with no progress, it seemed like continuing to go back and forth about the one issue was not going to be productive. Their positions were set. Neither could influence the other, and neither wanted to change their mind.

Part of what we do as mediators is look below the surface of what people are saying to get to the interests underlying their positions. Interests are what fuels your positions. Interests can also be called values, motivations, or needs. When one of your interests isn’t being met, you create a strategy for how to get that need met. That strategy is your position. Two people creating different strategies for how to get their needs met are what leads to different positions, i.e. to conflict.

In this case, both parties had the same interests. Their interests were the safety and protection of their children. They each thought that their position on vaccines was the best way to keep their kids safe. When a mediator digs deep into what a party is saying to find the interest, they are looking for what is most important to that person and calling attention to it. Most of the time, people can agree about interests. Both parties agreed that what was most important was the safety and protection of their children, and each believed that the other parent genuinely shared those interests.

Given that they shared the same interest on this issue but couldn’t agree on the strategy for how to achieve it, I thought I’d ask some questions. I asked how they make decisions on important issues like this. I broke that down to specific aspects of how you make a decision – what sources they’d accept for information, who they would accept as experts to consult, what qualities the data needs to have that they’d agree to use when researching studies on this issue. In other words, we delineated the criteria they’d use to make this kind of decision. I also asked what safety protocols they’d support and encourage their kids to follow, such as masking, social distancing, etc., and what they’d do if the children had a known exposure to covid as these were also of concern to them.

The parents were in agreement about safety protocols and how to deal with an exposure. That part was easy. Then they discussed and analyzed different sources of information. Some they both agreed on, and some they didn’t. So we dug further. What would make a particular source be acceptable to each of them? They both wanted the data to be verified data and data that was not cherry-picked. 

We spelled these things out in their agreement – what sources they’d use for information, what qualities the data should have for the information sources used, what experts they would speak to, and a time frame for making the decision. In other words, they came to agreement upon all the criteria they’d use to make the decision. I was shocked that they were able to reach agreement, but they did. Despite not coming to a conclusion in that moment about whether or not to vaccinate their children, they had laid out a path for how to make that decision and will follow it once they’ve checked the acceptable sources and data, consulted with the agreed upon experts, and met the criteria they determined. 

I am encouraged and excited about the direction this went. Maybe this is the way to have these difficult conversations with those who have different opinions than ourselves on some of these divisive issues like the covid vaccine – to first talk about how we’re going to have the discussion and how we’re going to make these decisions. Once we’ve reached agreement about how we’re going to decide, actually deciding is so much easier.


Felicia Staub

Felicia Staub is a founder of Empowered Communication, a mediation and training business in Washington State, and is their Senior Mediator/Trainer. She is also the Practicum Supervisor and In-House Mediator for the Snohomish Dispute Resolution Center (DRC). She has a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. She trained… MORE >

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