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Mediators in the Service of Helping Others

It is a safe assumption that the majority of mediators consider themselves collaborators who like helping parties to find solutions with regard to their disputes or conflicts. In fact, mediators belong to the respectable list of practitioners and professionals who get satisfaction from helping people improve their lives. Among others, caretakers, therapists, nurses, priests, and doctors belong to the category of   ‘helpers’ who are in the service of curing, healing, and remedying various maladies. 

The collaborative attitude held by mediators is exhibited in two distinct ways. First, (ideally) mediators become equal partners with all participants in mediation. Obviously, they need to control the process of mediation and the parties. Yet controlling does not mean dominating the process or participants. Rather, it means that mediators make sure that no party disrupts the process and no party manipulates it to their own advantage.  Second, mediators help to promote and enhance a collaborative attitude and cooperation among competing and quarrelling parties.         

 This article aims to elucidate three themes. The first can be summed up by two questions: what are the motivational factors which encourage us to help others and which of these factors are pertinent to a mediators’ persona. The second concerns the dynamics of help  that are often found in mediations, where human interaction and deep human relations play an important role. The third theme explores the ethics of help and offers some ideas about self-interest, common interest, and interests of others. The standard issues of selfishness, selflessness, (self) sacrifice, and altruistic motives are frequently addressed by disputants during mediation and mediators should be alerted to the importance of these subject matters.       

Motivational Factors

 Why do people help each other and why are some people more inclined to help than others? To answer these questions, it is helpful to start with two types of orientation. The first type can be described as an orientation toward others, the second as an orientation toward oneself. The word “orientation” is carefully chosen. People generally possess both orientations. Yet, their predominant, spontaneous reactions demonstrate whether they are concerned primarily with others or are primarily motivated by self-interest. The value people attach to helping others in contrast to helping themselves determines which orientation they favor. Cultural frameworks also contribute to the better understanding of the orientation people prefer. One cannot underestimate what an important role cultural awareness plays in mediation process. For instance, in individualistic cultures such as ours, people pride themselves in being independent, self-sufficient, self-reliant, and self-determined. Terms like autonomy, individual responsibility, and legal rights are intimately associated with an orientation toward the self. In collectivistic cultures, it is the community, solidarity, and interdependence which are the driving forces behind people’s actions and their dominant orientation. Specifically, in the Japanese society there is a difficulty to fully embrace the concept of individuality.[1] In collectivistic cultures individual responsibility is often superseded by collective responsibility and consensus driven decision-making takes over the individual decisions, negotiated and cross-validated by the participants.[2]

There are many motivational factors which prompt people to help others. People help other out of duty and obligation, out of guilt or out of pity. They also help because it makes them feel good or makes others feel good. They help because they expect something in return, such as love, care, gratitude, appreciation, and many other things. They also help, because they expect to be helped by others in the future. They help aiming to protect others. And they help when they are the part of the collaborative group effort. Some of the motives are altruistic, some of them are self-serving. Manipulation, gaining trust of other to take advantage of them, and enhancing a person’s image and reputation as a do-gooder are some of the more selfish motivations to help. Compassion, genuine care, sympathy and empathy belong to the repertoire of more venerable and virtuous motives. Two important purposes related to help are the enhancement of solidarity among different collectives and collectivities, such as teams, communities, and even nations. On the more intimate level, the purpose of helping translates to a respectful interdependence and healthy (more lasting) relationships.   

Mediators need to ask themselves, which of these motivations listed about are driving them to help the parties. If they consider themselves to be members of the community of helpers, then they should consider helping the parties for altruistic reasons, rather than selfish ones. There is no doubt that mediators like to be appreciated for what they do and are willing to accept the gratitude expressed by those individuals (parties) who are on the receiving side of their help. Being collaborative partners, mediators are also the promoters of the cooperative spirit among the participants in mediation. They become participants in cooperation themselves. Finally, the practitioners of mediation are still awaiting (and expecting) appreciation from the greater society in return for their well-intentioned effort. The majority of mediators believe that the mediation practice promotes the idea of common good and by resolving disputes and removing conflicts or at least mitigating them, the cohesion of our communities can be enhanced.     

A few words of caution need to be offered. Even the best intentioned help can be unwelcomed. Some people want help, yet have a difficulty to ask for it. Those who like to help, including mediators, must be aware of the risks, when their help might yield unfavorable or unexpected outcomes and they will be blamed by those who they try to help.  The helpers might also contemplate, if the people deserve their help and on what grounds. In his book, Mediating Dangerously, Kenneth Cloke writes

Mediators need to watch themselves carefully to avoid slipping into negative forms of nurturing,       particularly in cases where one party has adopted the pose of victim, labeling the other a perpetrator. Most people who chose the role of the victim believe they will be supported only as long as they are in pain, unhealed, and oppressed by some evil…….When this happens, the helper, rescuer, or mediator becomes part of the victim’s self-replicating system, fueling self-fulfilling prophecy.  In which person play a role in allowing the persecution to continue.    

Dynamics of Help

When considering the alternatives of orientation toward others and toward oneself, it is important to realize that these two orientations represent also relationship to oneself and others. Taking care of oneself and helping oneself are closely related to taking care of others and helping them. This statement is even more magnified when applied to helpers. Therapists, nurses, and mediators often find their work emotionally draining and exhausting. They often need recovery time and they use a variety of self-healing and self-remedial approaches to restore their full performative potential. Because they frequently deal with physical pain and emotional distress, mediators can be deeply impacted by the parties’ heightened emotional states and moods. Hence, if they want to help others they occasionally need to take care of themselves. This balancing act between self-care and the care for others should be on the mind of all practitioners of mediation. 

Relationships are in the center of all mediations. Some of them are more superficial then others, some of them are intimate and close relationships. Other types are strictly professional or business relationships. Family and divorce mediation offers different challenge than business or employment mediation, yet some form of mutual assistance or help, and the collaborative approach to reach a settlement or achieve reconciliation is at the heart of every dispute.    


The request for help is associated with judgment. If someone is willing to help with or without being asked, that person is praised as generous, unselfish, giving or charitable. If someone refuses to help or denies help he or she is considered as cold-hearted, selfish, or cheap. Judgments about generosity and selfishness are expressed all the time. Ingratitude, self-sacrifice, fulfilled or unfulfilled expectations, and the denial of help belong to the standard repertoire of items expressed during mediation by participants. The corrosion or the enhancement of relationships often becomes a direct result of similar judgments. Help can be denied because a person believes that helping others makes people dependent (lacking self-reliance) and irresponsible. Occasionally, people do not have the means to help or unfavorable circumstances might prevent them to help. Therefore, judgements take into consideration persons’ beliefs and circumstances.

For some to ask for help or to accept help can be a difficult thing to do. They lack the courage to ask for it, because they are afraid of being labeled as not self-sufficient, parasitic or a burden to others. They can be ashamed of themselves, because they pride themselves in being self-reliant and independent. On another occasion people are afraid to ask for help because others might ask for their help in return. The rejection of help can be considered as the lack of generosity, the lack of care, or sensitivity. One way or another, people judge others and are judged by others based on their mutual help or the lack of it.


In every relationship people have expectations. They expect others to behave certain way. They expect some form of help, assistance and cooperation, which often translates to their assessment of care or love, support, friendship, or solidarity. Sometimes they expect gifts or favors.[3] People expect things from themselves. If they do not live up to others expectations or their own expectations, their pride, self-esteem, and self-respect might suffer and their self-confidence might be diminished.

Expectations become fulfilled, unfulfilled or partially fulfilled. If they are frequently fulfilled they generate trust and relationships flourish. Quite often relationships suffer from trust deficit or at least a diminishment of trust which leads to the great potential for conflict. The words which are expressed and the behavioral patterns exhibited by partners in conflict are often mutually expected and responses are well rehearsed and performed ad nauseam in a repetitive fashion without understanding or self-awareness and mutual awareness by those who perform them. If expectations remain unfulfilled for prolonged periods of time, it creates unhealthy dynamics between people in relationship.

Unfulfilled expectations breed disappointment and disappointment breeds resentment.  Partners with unfulfilled expectations have a tendency to suspect that their partners in relationship deny them what they expect and wish for deliberately. The game of the mutual deniability follows. If you deny me what I want I will deny you what you want. Specifically, between couples, if the wife believes that her husband deliberately does not provide financial security and stability for the family, she might in return deny him sexual intimacy. In return, he might deny his wife exactly the things she expects from him. Possibly out of frustration, he might then seek intimacy outside of marriage. A deep sense of betrayal follows on both sides and loyalties to each other are questioned regularly.  Mutual dependability and mutual reliance slowly disappears. Therefore trust, dependability, expectations, and loyalties all contribute to the dynamics of mutual help and cooperation. The lack of reciprocity spells up a trouble in every relationship. This reciprocity, or the lack of it, is represented not only by fulfilled or unfulfilled expectations but also by the proportionality of help and by frequency the partners in relationships exchange help. The proportionality (and disproportionality) between the helping and the helped is difficult to determine with a great level of certitude. People often accuse each other of disproportionate help. ‘I did so much for you and you did so little’, ‘I sacrificed so much and you do not show any gratitude.’ Or ‘I give so much and you just take and take and give nothing back.’ ‘I put so much effort in to this and nobody appreciates it.’  If the perception is that one is helping a lot without too much in return, be it gratitude, appreciation, or reciprocal help, the persons who expect something in return might believe they are taken advantage of by those who they are helping. 


When people help each other they put conditions on their help. A unique request is asked for, when a person is asking to be helped unconditionally by the other person. Unconditional or unilateral help is often understood in terms of unconditional care, a deep concern, or love. (The requested unconditional help must be distinguished from helping strangers or the underprivileged. Different types of charitable behavior represent the unconditional help without asking for anything in return.)

Here are some statements which question the conditions of help. ‘You only do things for me because you expect something from me in return.’ ‘If you loved me and cared for me you would do this for me without expecting anything.’ or ‘If you refuse to do this for me, you are not my friend.’ These statements can be occasionally interpreted as a form of blackmail and might force the helpers to provide assistance for different and not always agreeable reasons. For example, they might be afraid that they can be perceived and judged as selfish or cruel. Or they might be afraid that without providing help consequences for them and the people they care about might be catastrophic or hurtful.

The ultimate condition put on the other persons is asking from them to do things without expecting anything in return. Therefore, demanding and testing the purity of intentions to be helped unconditionally leads to an impasse which can be called the unconditional/conditional paradox. This type of dynamics of help has a negative effect especially on familial or other types of close relationships. Those who ask for a proof of an unconditional care or love are often people who do not trust the intentions of others and question their motivations whenever they ask others for their help. The people who are susceptible to continue this type of dynamics are people who have a tendency to please others incessantly or people who believe their mission in life is to be the rescuers of others. Pleasing others is based on the expectations to gain attention, recognition, or some other reward from the recipients who are being pleased. The tendency to be saviors and rescuers has a long history in the religious activity of proselytization (saving souls). In psychotherapeutic practice, the countertransference between a patient and a therapist can exhibit the proclivity by the therapist to be a rescuer of his or her client.

Some mediators might show a predisposition toward pleasing and rescuing others, therefore they need to be self-aware of having such a propensity. Acting out of pity, sympathy or trying to alleviate suffering of a particular individual can expose mediators to manipulation by the parties.  This presents a challenge to those mediators who are concerned with the fairness related to the outcome of negotiations and who are concerned with the quality of relationships they are trying to improve or transform.

The Ethics of Help

The ethics of help, be it self-help or helping others, relates to two different orientations mentioned previously. [4] Discourses about selfishness and selflessness, about self-sacrifice and the sacrifice of others, and about egoism versus altruism are often part of the analysis and explanations of conflicts between individuals, groups, or even nations. They involve terms such as mutuality and reciprocity, collaboration and partnership, and power and hierarchical versus egalitarian relationships. All these categories are familiar to mediators who face the realities of conflict and dispute, dealing with them in practical terms.

In his book, The Possibility of Altruism, [5]Thomas Nagel offers a following definition:

         By altruism I mean not abject self-sacrifice, but merely a willingness to act in consideration of   interests of other persons, without the need of ulterior motives.

One particular word in Nagel’s working definition, interests, is quite recognizable to experts and practitioners of negotiation and mediation. It is in itself an interesting word.

Individuals often negotiate with themselves and they negotiate with other people. These negotiations take into account the concept of self-interest, other-interests, and common interests. From the practical standpoint negotiations are concerned with the constellation of interests and can be described in terms of the alignment (congruence) of interests or the conflict of interests. The attitude toward the variety of interests can be positive, negative, or disinterested attitude. It is not difficult to see that the concept of interest can be elucidated within the psychological (attitudes, motives) framework, the social-cultural (constellation, hierarchy) framework, and the ethical (altruism, egotism, fairness) framework.    

Self-interest in ethical terms is often associated with being selfish or egotistic, lacking the inclination to assist others. Two other terms, ‘other-interest’ and ‘common­-interests’, are closely associated with the mostly positive aspects of the ethics of help and therefore should be a primary concern to the practitioners of mediation to a great extent.

How could mediators go about assessing and determining the role of interests in negotiations? How could they determine the constellation of interests and incorporate them into their negotiation strategies? How do they attach importance to different interests of different parties? How do they understand what these interests represent and symbolize for the individuals, who claim them? And how do mediators distinguish between genuine and faked interests, parties present during mediation?   

These are all methodological and practical challenges. The task to list and organize all interests regarding their alignment (congruence versus the conflict of interests) could be an arduous task and the completeness of such list might be close to impossible to verify. A more intuitive, conversational approach is to elicit the answers by asking parties to articulate, define, and attach the different degrees of importance to their interests. Once the interests are spelled out by the participants in mediation, they can be organized into ‘bargaining units’ and become the intricate parts of the negotiation process. Interests are differently assessed, when it comes to individuals’ wants and needs. In other words, persons do not always know what they want and often they  are not sure what their needs are. Occasionally, they are not sure what they should do or must do. It is up to mediators’ skillful and sensible way of questioning, eliciting, and promptly assessing what the authentic interests of parties are and which of these interests move them toward a solution during negotiations.

Here the regard for others and their interests plays a crucial role. If individuals have a tendency to act mostly on altruistic motives, their approach to negotiations might be more collaborative. If, on the other hand, their actions are mostly based on self-interest they prefer to engage in competitive bargaining. At this juncture a few words of caution need to be expressed.  In conflict situations parties clearly delineate who their enemies and their friends or allies are and who the perpetrators and the victims are. Acting in self-interest versus acting in other-interests depends on how one defines his or her membership when it to comes to an in-group/out-group distinction. [6] Therefore, individuals can be deeply concerned with others interests when they claim a voluntary membership (the loyalty to the people and the leadership) in a particular in-group. That is, they identify with a particular group and often share common interests with co-members of that group. The opposite is true when it comes to a particular outgroup. Those individuals, who are marked and labeled as enemies, are approached with a suspicion and distrust. Their interests are disregarded or found unacceptable (the interests of the in-group and out-group are in conflict or are incongruent) and the concern for their well-being is minimized or disappears altogether. In the vocabulary of moral judgments they are condemned as bad, evil, or disgusting. [7] The result is the double standard frequently applied in conflictual situations. A different set of standards are applied to the in-group in comparison to the out-group.

The remaining question is, how commonly shared the common interests are and how they enhance a communal spirit within a particular in-group while at the same time creating a potential animosity based on the distinct set of common interests between distinct groups and collectivities? For conflict resolvers and practicing mediators this is a crucial question. If they consider themselves the members of the  community of helpers, and profess ‘neutrality’ and ‘fairness’ when they deal with acrimonious parties, should they adhere to the belief that commonalities represent the better attributes in human nature? Or, they take a more ‘realistic’ view of the humanity and subscribe to the belief that the differences among individuals and groups (collectives) are so profound that they cannot be reconciled. The exploration of the relation between ‘other-interests’ and ‘common interests’ could provide some interesting answers.                

In conclusion, it is quite difficult to imagine how the world would look without help between persons, groups, or nations. Help is a natural tendency we all have. It is a disposition which makes us human and enables us to coexist. It defines us as individuals and as social creatures.    



[1] In his book, The Japanese, the former American ambassador to Japan Edwin O. Reischauer, writes; “Even the word ‘individualism’ (kojin-shugi) is still an ambivalent word in Japan, as it has been ever since the first contacts with the West, suggesting as it does to the Japanese selfishness rather than personal responsibility. Recent college students, in grouping for the concept of individual self-expression, often bypassed  individualism’ in favor if the word ‘subjectivity’ (shutaisei) in the sense of one being the active subject rather than the passive object in one’s life.

[2] In the textbook, International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior, 4th Edition, South-Western (2002),  p. 28, Nancy J. Adler writes, The individual versus group orientation also influences decision making. In North America, individuals make decisions. North Americans, therefore, make decisions relatively quickly, although implementation frequently gets delayed while the decision maker explains the decision and gains concurrence from other members of the organization. By contrast, in Japan, a group oriented culture, many people make the decision rather than just one. The process of group decision making is less flexible and more time consuming than in individualistic system because concurrence must be achieved prior to making decision. However, because all parties already understand and concur, the Japanese can implement a decision almost immediately after it is made.

[3] The classical socio-anthropological work by Marcel Mauss, The Gift, addresses the issue of gift exchange as the grounds for solidarity and honor among the members of a particular society.

[4] Even here, the cultural differences are noticeable. The Japanese therapeutic approach called Naikan, incorporates concepts and issues directly related to the ethics of help. Quoting from the book, Current Psychotherapies, editors R.J. Corsini and D. Wedding, F.E. Peacock Publishers, Inc. (1995), pp. 391-392, following is stated. …Japanese therapy Naikan, is adapted from a more intensive Buddhist practice and consists simply of intensive reflection on past relationships. Clients reflect specifically on three things: what other people done for them, what they have done for others, and the difficulties they caused others. The aim is to foster recognition of human interdependence, of how much we received from others, how much gratitude is due them, and how little we have demonstrated this gratitude. Along with the confrontation of guilt and unworthiness comes recognition that one has been loved and appreciated in spite of weaknesses and failings.     

[5] Thomas Nagel, The Possibility of Altruism, Princeton University Press (1970)

[6] See, Gordon W. Allport, The Nature of Prejudice, (Part I., Chapter 3. Formation of In-group), Anchor Books edition (1958)

[7] Sometimes the confusion and ambiguity toward others can be expressed by a following statement; ‘I have nothing against gay people personally, but I found their behavior disgusting and sinful in the eyes of God.’ This confusion and ambiguity is based on the distinction between personal and impersonal standpoint. People who find themselves in close relationships (think workplace) can learn that they have a lot in common, yet their core systems of beliefs can create a great divide between them. Often, the core beliefs preclude individuals even attempting to approach each other and engage in meaningful conversation and interaction.


Milan Slama

Milan Slama is a practicing mediator and arbitrator in the Los Angeles area. He is a co-founder and the Board member of VBMC (Valley Bar Mediation Center). Currently he is a contractor for Los Angeles County and he also mediates for Chilren's Court.He has been associated with the LA Superior… MORE >

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