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Mediators Are Unbalanced

It’s common today to hear the perfect person being described as “living in balance.” As though we all want to run around being little Stepford robots with every little moment being completely, perfectly planned, spending the exact right amount of time on everything, with your attention always equally divided amongst all your responsibilities so that everything perfectly balances out.

That’s not me.

And I would venture to say, that is not true of most of the mediators I know. Now that sense of discipline and organization and future-thinking is true of some people, God bless ’em. But when I think of what makes a great mediator, I mean the really amazing type of mediator that just refocuses your entire philosophy, I just don’t see them as being “balanced” people.

Here’s what I mean: really good mediators throw their entire being into listening, and listeners can sense that. They are not half-listening, and half-worrying about appearing completely neutral and unbiased and giving the other party half of their focus. When someone is half-listening, it is like they are always balancing out what you have to say with what they think of what you have to say. Instead, have a conversation with a mediator and it is like they have blinders on to the outside world. They see you and only you, they are listening to only you. Their only concern at that moment is understanding what you are saying and why you are saying it.

Now, I realize of course this isn’t always possible. But I would venture: it is possible and preferable more often than we realize. I mediated a case a few years ago where a couple had separated and was trying to figure out how to take care of the dog and the car that they had bought together. For a few minutes I tried to be balanced. I gave both parties an equal amount of time, then I began to objectively, practically discuss scheduling, costs, and so on. The parties were not with me. So I stopped. I put down my pen and pushed the paper off to the side. I leaned in and became completely unbalanced, meaning that these parties in that moment were my only focus. Everything else that might normally be on the other side of the scales, things like having a set process, wanting to appear neutral, worried about how much time this was taking, and hoping we could break for lunch soon, I pushed completely out of mind. I looked both of them in the eye and said, “Would you please tell me more?”

A rush of emotion came out. Feelings and memories and forgotten stories. Both parties had forgotten about the dog and the car. It was as if they knew in that moment someone genuinely cared about them and wanted to get to know them. They both became completely vulnerable and told me why this had pained them so much and how the separation was still affecting them. I nodded and listened and didn’t even try to think of how to rephrase and validate. Instead I just hung on every word they said and encouraged them to continue. They spoke for a half an hour without stopping, finishing each others’ sentences, validating each other in a way. In a beautiful, Hallmark moment, they both decided that maybe they would try to talk through a couple things together. Over dinner. With candles.

Feeling completely unbalanced was a little unnerving–what if they talk for too long? what if new issues come up? what should I say next? what if I appear unprofessional? But I gave myself permission to really dive into it throwing cares and balancing to the wind. Trying to balance everything is an impossible task anyway.

Now I am beginning to notice this same trend in mediators around me: they can throw caution and balance and precedence to the wind and just listen as if the person in front of them was the most important person in the world. And really, isn’t that what our job is all about?


Clare Fowler

Clare Fowler is Executive Vice-President and Managing Editor at, as well as a mediator and trainer. Clare received her Master's of Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at the Pepperdine University School of Law and her Doctorate in Organizational Leadership, focused on reducing workplace conflicts, from Pepperdine… MORE >

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