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In the world of mediation, power is always an issue. Usually the focus is on the power – balanced or otherwise – of the parties. Less often mentioned are the sources of power drawn upon by practitioners. 

This reticence isn’t because mediators don’t have power. We do. For one thing, mediators have the power to stop the session. And as ‘process managers’ we have considerable control over what happens in the room. Mediators exercise their procedural power when we ask questions, offer summaries, or ensure opportunities for parties to speak.

Mediation, however, is more than process. At the heart of mediation are a set of relationships. Human beings engaging with other human beings. And power is part and parcel of every relationship. The relationship between mediator and parties is no exception. The question isn’t whether we have power in this relationship, but rather how to understand our power – and how to use it. Lacking this awareness, our power can cripple the process.

The Power of Paradox
As strange as it seems, I believe that as mediators we derive much of our power from an unavoidable paradox.  As practitioners, we are expected to embody two opposing and seemingly contradictory qualities simultaneously. These qualities lie at either end of the psychological spectrum. And yet, to do the work that we need to do, mediators must be fully committed to both renunciation and care.

Neither on its own will suffice. Renunciation untouched by care can lead to callousness and a mechanical approach. Care without renunciation risks being overly sympathetic and the loss of impartiality. Only when joined together can they function like the opposing shores of a great sea, circumscribing the territory in which we work.   

Renunciation: Keeping Our Hands Off
Renunciation carries a kind of moral overtone. We associate it more with martyrs than mediators. And yet, mediators are called to ‘renounce’ any stake in the outcome of a dispute. This stance is to be maintained even in the face of repeated efforts by the parties to drag us into the conflict.

From the parties’ perspective, this pull towards partiality is understandable. After all, any opinion or judgment the mediator offers can relieve them of their responsibility to make uncomfortable choices.

And this discomfort isn’t confined to the parties. Holding fast to renunciation while witnessing parties as they painfully struggle to find a way forward is far from easy. The temptation for mediators to jump into the role of rescuer is ever present. Doing so not only undermines the process, but sends an unambiguous message: the parties can’t manage their own lives.

The dilemma for mediators is clear. If we refuse the power of renunciation, we disempower our clients. Only by keeping our hands off their lives, can we rightfully insist that they steer their own course. The power of renunciation, the withdrawing of our own set of maps, helps create a space. A space for others to fill.

Care: Keeping Our Hearts Open
Having absented ourselves through renunciation, we return via care. Care not only in the professional sense of ensuring the smooth running of the process, but more personally, care for those who are struggling to use it.

On a fundamental level, I do the work I do because I care. Peace matters to me. The pain and distress felt by those in conflict matters to me. The world in which their disputes unfold is also my world. There is no standing apart.

Care invokes compassion. To care about the parties in mediation is to suffer with them as they show their hurt, pain and distress. Sitting there as practitioners we also sit there as witnesses. As such, we are constantly reminded how hard the process is, what courage it takes to stick with it. And how much it matters that someone actually cares.

Care matters because it implies worth. That despite the pettiness of current behaviour – the stupid, hurtful things that are said and done – we are more. Care confirms the larger sense of who we are that is currently unavailable. Care keeps our humanity in view. 

Practicing Paradox
Renunciation and care are the twin pillars that frame our work. On the one hand, we need to renounce any status as savants or saviours. On the other, we are caught up in lives that could just as easily be our own. We are simultaneously apart and a piece. This is the paradox. The ensuing tension can feel enormous.

And sometimes we can’t manage. Depending on our temperaments, our experience, our exhaustion, we choose one side or the other. Those who opt for renunciation risk cutting off. While those who choose care risk burning out.

It is only by finding a way to live with the paradox – of letting go and holding close – that we are able to create a mediatable space. Powered by paradox, we do our work in a space created by renunciation and sustained by care.


Michael Jacobs

Michael Jacobs has been mediating for the past 23 years across a range of disputes, including family, community, workplace and civil/commercial. He appreciates the fact that even after all this time, he is still quite capable of making mistakes and getting things wrong – it means that he has more… MORE >

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