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The Natural Mediator

Clear rules and simple answers have always been troubling for me. While I acknowledge the allure they hold, too often their application leads to greater confusion and unintended consequences, especially in complex matters. A good measure of my personal affinity and professional interest in negotiation and mediation is derived from the release I am allowed from the necessity of determining who is right or wrong and what is the right answer. I have found my naturally confused state of mind to be useful.

However, while I have found some refuge in mediation practice, I find the evolving belief in the profession about the nature and personality of a mediator to be too simple and bland. The conventional wisdom in the field is that a mediator is a humanistic, compassionate, patient, empathetic and rational listener, slow to anger and frustration and eternally optimistic that all issues can be resolved and have a right and proper resolution.

While I would like to believe I exhibit some of those traits sometimes, much of the time I fall short. Listening to other mediators discuss the subject, perusing conference workshop offerings, or reading literature in the field, often makes me feel even more isolated and out of step. Some have even suggested that natural mediators can be discovered through psychological testing using such tests as the Meyers-Briggs Inventory. Some mediation training participants come fortified by a career counselor who, after careful analysis, has determined the candidate to be well suited to mediate by virtue of the fact that he or she is a "caring individual and a good listener."

I think that what many say the character traits of a good mediator should be are not what they actually are. Some research has confirmed that there is a gap between what mediators say they think they are doing and what others observe them to be doing. As well, truth be told, my own experience suggests that mediators are not particularly thoughtful, empathetic or rational when dealing with their own conflicts. (Something akin, I suppose, to "the shoemaker has no shoes"). I do not intend to impugn the integrity of mediators-quite the opposite. I am only suggesting that the personality traits that best serve mediators may not be the most obvious or commonly presented.

In contrast to the conventional belief of which traits make a good mediator, (or perhaps as justification for my poorly evolved personality), I have distilled four important attributes of the natural mediator. They are as follows: (1) confused, (2) voyeuristic, (3) compulsive, and (4) marginal. Rationality and empathy are strategically useful but they are second tier attributes that can be learned if the first tier attributes are present.

Those who naturally possess this trait know who they are. There is a simple test: when confronted with the query, "Are you part of the problem or part of the solution?" you find yourself unable to respond. Like a deer caught in the headlights, you are immobilized. Not wanting to be part of the problem, you want to respond quickly and categorically, but upon hearing the solution set forth, just can't join the cause. Those of us of this ilk endure the chronic malady of a sore rear end from constantly sitting on the fence. This confusion serves a mediator well-it allows him or her to naturally understand there are no easy answers and to help confuse parties who presume otherwise. The confused mediator more readily sees the validity to each person's perspective and more naturally resists aligning with any particular person. They recognize that heroes can be scoundrels, and victims can be perpetrators, and vice versa. It's never easy or clear.

This attribute is troublesome; most assume voyeurism to be a form of sexual perversion. While it can be that, in this case it is associated with an endless fascination with how other human beings engage each other, construct their realities, and pursue their intimate relations. This attribute allows the mediator a greater ability to resist being judgmental, knowing that "there but for the grace of God, go I." How else to explain the popularity of Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Springer, and The National Enquirer? A mediator does not so much do disputing parties a favor by helping them settle conflict, but is rather being honored by being invited by them to aide in managing some of the most intimate matters of their lives.

This personality trait is probably the result of conflictual early toilet training. It is the penchant to bring order out of chaos. It should not necessarily be confused with the neurotic behavior Freud termed "anal compulsion," although that may be part of it. If one assumes that a good measure of conflict is less about allocation of resources and more about people being overwhelmed and fearful that they will be taken advantage of and made to look like a fool, then compulsive organizating-with the use of maps, charts, and a clear structure are essential. The mediator is the wilderness tour guide and must be well prepared. The mediator can't just wander along with them, but must instead sense and anticipate the parties' fears before they become overwhelmed.

I don't mean to suggest that mediators exhibit the characteristics of borderline personality disorder, although I suspect from time to time we have all wondered about ourselves. The implications of being marginal are that the mediator is not aligned or associated with any cause or purpose other than to help the parties make decisions for themselves. Groucho Marx said it best: "Any group that would have me as a member isn't worth joining." It means letting go of attachments to what life should be in a perfect world-one good for children, women, men, minorities, and other people of every stripe and kind. The mediator has to be on the fringe-an outsider-less concerned about what is right, than with what will work to settle a dispute in the present circumstance. Mediation is not about social justice.

Perhaps as mediators we try to hard to impose on ourselves unrealistic and artificial expectations of what we should be. In other words, we try to be saints when what may serve us the best is to recognize and use our basic nature. I suspect that many more of us are naturally confused, voyeuristic, compulsive and marginal than we are rational, patient and understanding in the path of conflict. The difference is that a good natural mediator has learned not to deny his or her basic nature, but rather to harness and use those amply provided attributes or vulnerabilities to our advantage.

Originally published by in 2001


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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