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Neutrality And Narrative Mediation

Neutrality And Narrative Mediation

I’m sure we all have a view on the notion of neutrality and impartiality and whether this is an attainable ideal or not. One of the assumptions that underpin is that we all bring stories into a mediation, parties and mediator alike. These stories, regardless of what we think, do have an influence on how we engage, interact and intervene during the course of the mediation – if we accept this assumption then we have to accept that neutrality is merely an aspiration or intention and nothing more. Or is that just my story? Find out what Dr Sara Cobb thinks about the implications of Narrative mediation theory on the notion of neutrality.

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Full Transcript

Aled: You’re probably aware by now that I’ve got a bit of thing about neutrality and impartiality. Well, if you want to find out what a narrative mediator thinks about neutrality, watch this interview, with probably the leading authority on narrative mediation, Dr. Sara Cobb. She makes a very compelling point. Okay. Here’s the interview.

The mediator’s story. I’m curious about the mediator’s story, or stories, because if parties have stories mediators have stories. We can’t sort of switch off and be this sort of blank canvas-

Sara: Right.

Aled: Regardless of what some people think. That’s my view and that’s, you know-

Sara: And you’re sticking to it.

Aled: I’m doing what you did earlier on, and I’m just putting a little caveat underneath. How does the notion of stories and the mediator’s stories impact on all of the implications for neutrality and impartiality in mediation?

Sara: Well, I think that what we, what the social constructionist, let’s go back to social construction for a second, what they realised was, and this is through empirical research, you know, that meaning is fluid, right? That it’s not fixed. And that as we interact we alter the shape, the contours, the content of the content that we discuss, and we change and evolve, we support the evolution of meaning, and that can be a conversation where you and I go out and have lunch and we end up understanding ourselves as parents differently, for instance. It’s not because, that happens whether you’ve got a conflict or not, right? It goes on all the time.

So, if that’s the case, if meaning is, indeed, fluid, and if conversations are the vehicle for the evolution of those meanings, then our participation as mediators in conversations is, we are implicated in any changes in those meanings. And that, from that perspective you can’t extricate, you know, we can’t theoretically, at the theoretical level and at the empirical level, we cannot escape the reality that we are part of the soup. You know, we’re part of the discursive and meaning and narrative conditions that are then in development, in circulation and in development. So, if that’s the case, we are, not only, can we not get out, but we must understand the ways in which we participate actually alters these meanings. So we are part of the politics of meaning making. I think that’s, you know, that’s a concept that’s sort of the demise of neutrality, I think, is based on the idea that people cannot be valueless, or history-less or identity-less, but my critique of neutrality is based on a more sort of language pragmatics perspective, that meaning is produced in conversations, and if that’s the case, where we are implicated politically in the nature of the meanings that we participate in the production of.

Aled: Yes.

Sara: In mediation sessions. So, I think, I just think we have to, I guess, I would like to add one more point, and that is, if we can’t get out of the the soup, right, We’re implicated politically, and then make sure the meanings and the stories that are created, then the question comes ‘What is our ethical obligation?’ You know, ‘What kinds of political, ethical obligations do we have?’ because we used to cling onto neutrality and that’s saved us from this ‘We made a distinction between a process and a content. We’ll just take care of the process, and the content we don’t touch.’ Well now, if we know we’re touching the content, what is the, what are the boundaries and what are the obligations? What obligations do we have ethically?’ And I think, for me, it’s about, the ethical obligation has to do with making sure, and this goes back to something Vivian Jubree [sounds like 4:20] has written about, you know, she’s this wonderful theorist of conflict resolution, but also Hannah Rent [sounds like 4:29] said the same, that people must be described as works of art. My job, my ethical job, is to make sure that the parties in a narrative mediation process are described by me back to them and etc. as works of art. They’ve got to be complicated, beautiful, wonderful, a rich decoration on the planet, you know, a blessing. And that’s the job, is to see, is to describe, as the mediator I’m basically like an orchestra conductor. You know, I can organize who talks and who doesn’t. I can ask particular kinds of questions and I can pick up the piccolo in the back, which is a theme or a tone that we haven’t heard before and pull that out, and suddenly, not only, the orchestra’s different. What do we hear is different.

So, I think we’ve got the power to support the evolution of meaning. Then we just have to know ‘Well, where are we going with that?’ and if we’re going in the direction of, towards these humanising narratives where everybody is, you know, a work of art, then that, I think, is a good criteria for us knowing ‘Are we moving in a good direction?’ and ‘Have we done the work we needed to do so that people are, not just validated, but people know themselves differently at the end?’ It’s not just they come in and then they’re validated with who they think they are.

Aled: Yeah.

Sara: They see their own beauty, and you, as the mediator, I, as the mediator, have made it clear that I see the beauty of this person, and I see the beauty of this person, and then they can see the beauty of each other.

Aled: Now I used to think that we should see people as people, not as objects, but now that you’ve used the term seeing people as works of art, and, oh, I actually, you know, when you think about it, that’s probably the one exception isn’t it?

Sara: Yes.

Aled: You know, describing them, seeing them as this, you know, beauty, beauty in the eye of the beholder.

Sara: Yeah. Exactly. That’s a good way to say it because you’re the beholder, as the mediator.

Aled: Yes.

Sara: It’s like you’d better behold in a direction that advances good stories.

Aled: And if that’s the case, we can’t possibly be neutral and impartial.

Sara: No.

Aled: We shouldn’t even espouse to be.

Sara: No. No. So I think we’re, you and I are in a groove on that together.

Aled: I think we definitely are. Okay. Look Sara, by the way, do you teach this stuff?

Sara: Yes.

Aled: Where?

Sara: You know, I direct the Center for Narrative and Conflict Resolution, and, you know, it’s sort of a baby center and we don’t have a lot of money and we’re doing research and I’ve got doctoral students and stuff. So we’re just now starting to think about programming that we could do at the institute, at the center, I’m sorry, in the summer, and then maybe something online. You know, I have, I taught online before, but I’ve taught traditional academic classes and not kind of workshops that I normally do on site somewhere. I haven’t done those online. But I could.

Aled: Okay.

Sara: So we’re thinking about some online workshops, and we’re also, and I offer academic classes, and I do training all over the place. So…

Aled: Okay. I’ll ask you at the end for some information so we can post underneath the interview.

Sara: Oh, that’s nice.

Aled: So anyone watching this that wants to find out more

Sara: That’s nice.

Aled:  can look you up. I’d love to come out and-

Sara: Well, come on.

Aled: I would. Yes.

Sara: I teach a class this spring, and I have visiting scholars. There’s this wonderful visiting scholar, Samantha Hardy, from Australia, is coming in September.

Aled: I’ve interviewed Sam.

Sara: Oh, she’s so great. She’s coming to our place. Maria Pia Lara who wrote a book called Narrating Evil, it’s just brilliant, from Mexico, John Winslade, who wrote the book Narrative Mediation has come. Arthur Feldman from New York University has come. So we’ve had these visiting scholars come in and they give talks and we do workshops and it’s just, it’s a very vibrant, interesting community where we have fun.

Aled: It sounds amazing. Okay. Just, one question I did have in mind-,

Sara: Yeah.

Aled: I haven’t asked yet, and you cued me into it a moment ago when you said, you referred to something, in narrative mediation, oh yes, it was ‘So are there specific cases, or types of cases, disputes, conflicts, you think narrative will be more effective, will have more of an impact, is better suited really?’

Sara: I think the range of questions that a narrative mediator asks, which are questions that oftentimes pick up threads that people may not have paid attention to before, I think there are settings where people don’t want other people to pick up any threads, and some of those are contract business settings for instance, you know, where they expect to have ‘Just the facts, ma’am,’ and everybody’s dressed in three piece suits and there’s a lot of money at stake, and they don’t want the sort of real, they might not be explicitly de-legitimising the other, but they’re just talking about the facts of the contract and this other person didn’t comply and they don’t even really care why they didn’t comply. They just want it to comply.

So those aren’t very developed stories, many of those business contract disputes, are not very developed stories. So, I’ve found that some of the narrative mediation that I’ve done, in some of those cases, I felt like just didn’t quite fit.

Aled: Yeah.

Sara: But I think that, I did a really interesting case with a very large construction dispute, and I went into it thinking ‘Oh, this isn’t going to work because it’s just too people-oriented narrative mediation for some of these more legalistic kind of problems.’

Aled: So you went into this with a story…

Sara: About it. Right.

Aled: About it, that this wasn’t, this might not be a…

Sara: No, I was worried about it, and it was just phenomenal, because I ended up, this long story that the contractor told about what they were trying to do, and when they first went into contracting, and sort of the history of his own relationship to his work that I didn’t anticipate he was going to, was going to show up, and that altered everything. That story changed everything. And it was, again, picking up that little note of a piccolo in the back, and then expanding that changed the tenor of the whole music that we heard. And I was very surprised. So it actually challenged some of my assumptions there about that. But most conflicts that I deal with are, let’s say, identity-based, protracted, violent conflicts, and this works beautifully. This narrative mediation worked beautifully, in that, not because you can put the principals together, but I can put different groups of people I can work with and then begin to design processes to bring representatives from those different stakeholder groups together. So-

Aled: What sort of-

Sara: I’ve done other work on, for instance, protracted conflict here in the United States on climate change, working with groups that have deep divisions inside of them where people, some people think they are, there is, it exists, and other people think climate change doesn’t exist, and I do just simply facilitated conversations, and that never rises to the level of mediation because there’s no discreet problem that’s formulated, so I think there’s sort of gradations of narrative work in the sense of some work actually terminates in agreements and is intended to, and other work just is facilitated conversations.

Aled: Yeah. What, so I’ve got a story now in my head after talking to you-

Sara: Yeah.

Aled: That in order to be effective as a narrative mediator, I would need some kind of background in linguistics, in psychology, in all sorts of clever stuff.

Sara: No, I don’t think so, because you, you know, when you go home this evening, or wherever you’re going to go, you go back to your house and your kids went back to school and your daughter complains to your wife that, in fact, ‘Daddy forgot my choir practice,’ and your wife turns around, looks at you, ready to stab you, because you’ve done that every single time, she’s fed up, you know exactly how to react. You know exactly what the story is that she has. You know, she doesn’t even have to breathe a word, you know what her story is. And you know exactly how to navigate that story in a way that would not lead to a third world war there in the kitchen tonight. So, and your daughter knows exactly how to tell the story, just, and then stand back and watch the fur fly, you know?

So we are, all of us, competent to narrative. We do not need to have advanced degrees in this. We do this every day. So, I feel like, in my, I’m teaching a class now on narrative practice for our students at the doctorate level, masters level, and, you know, we spend a lot of time paying attention to the stories we already know and exploring the stories we already are telling, and then, and we do that sort of rising up our own respect, increasing our respect for our own capacity as storytellers. We already are.

Then there are discreet techniques that we offer, you know, not only re-framing, which is pretty dominant, but positive connotation and externalisation and negative explanation and circular questions, and there’s a whole bag of things that can go along with this that could be technologies, but, you know, people, you just get an idea of where you’re, what you’re trying to do, people can usually find their way there even though they need experience and practice because people are afraid. They’re very afraid to mess around with other people’s stories.

Aled: Yeah.

Sara: So it’s overcoming that fear that ‘Is this important?’ You don’t need any advanced degrees in this.

Aled: Yeah. Okay. All right. So, Sara, this has been an enlightening interview. I’ve really, really enjoyed it.

Sara: [inaudible 15:37]

Aled: And I know people watching this, if they want to find out more about the courses that you run…

Sara: Right.

Aled: …or reach out to say ‘Thank you,’ to you, how do they do that?

Sara: Well, I’m a faculty at George Mason University, so that you can just look for me there. That’s Sara Cobb, S-A-R-A C-O-B-B, and you can email me at scobb, I offer, you can also look at The Narrative Center. We have a new journal. I’d love to have papers from people, from practitioners or anybody, it’s not just academics, who are writing papers about the relationship between narrative and conflict, conflict resolution. We have a new journal called Narrative and Conflict: Explorations in Theory and Practice there at the Narrative Center. So, you know, we’d really love to have people reach out, and love to connect.

Aled: Fantastic. You’ve been a real star. I’ve really enjoyed this. I wish we could…

Sara: Well, it’s just, you’re so easy to talk to, you know, in fact, people like you don’t do a service to me because you’re so easy to talk to and so expressive and wonderful that I end up talking a lot.

Aled: …well…

Sara: If you were less interesting and fun to talk with, I would have, perhaps, been more restrained in my comments. So, it’s your fault.

Aled: Very, very generous of you to say so. Well, let me be the first to say ‘Thank you.’

Sara: Thank you.

Aled: Sara, thank you very much for the interview, and all the very best.

Sara: No, thank you for including me in the programme. I really appreciate it.

Aled: Thanks Sara.

Sara: Bye.

About the mediator

Sara Cobb Profile Pic

Dr. Sara Cobb, (Ph.D., University of Massachusetts, Amherst) is a Professor at The School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR) at George Mason University, where she was also the Director for 8 years. In this context she teaches and conducts research on the relationship between narrative and violent conflict; she is also the Director of the Center for the Study of Narrative and Conflict Resolution at S-CAR that provides a hub for scholarsh... View Mediator