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Narrative Mediation and Mediator Neutrality

Narrative Mediation and Mediator Neutrality

What are the implications of the conflict stories for the mediator’s neutrality and impartiality?



Full Transcript

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.


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.


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.


The notion of beauty in the eye of the beholder is a good way to say it, because you’re the beholder, as the mediator. It’s like you’d better behold in a direction that advances good stories. That said, we can’t possibly be neutral and impartial.

About the mediator

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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