It is generally held that neutrality is a fundamental duty for mediators to uphold when assisting parties in conflict. For example, many courts and mediation associations have established ethical guidelines on neutrality (*)(***)(****). Beyond such considerations, neutrality creates the space for meaningful opportunities in and outside mediation and other related practices of dispute resolution. The following writing seeks to substantiate this notion. Additionally, relevant outlooks and challenges are examined in detail. Exploring and discussing neutrality in this way offers value to dispute resolution as well as other domains of personal and interpersonal experience.
A handful of years ago, I wrote on some of the benefits and challenges associated with maintaining neutrality and its closely related counterpart impartiality in dispute resolution also referred to as “conflict resolution” (**). In that short article, the following definitions were given — “impartiality is often noted as the guiding principle of facilitating conflict resolution processes without maintaining specific preference, favor, or bias”, and, “neutrality refers to making sure that the relationships are on equal ground” (**). However, it should be pointed out that neutrality and impartiality are often used interchangeably in the realm of dispute resolution — the use of neutrality here shall refer to both terms and definitions in general. Over the years, certain experiences in my work as a conflict resolution practitioner have prompted me to touch base on this key topic again. This is in large part because I want to expand on neutrality. I’ve noticed that it goes well beyond a critical principle found in law and negotiation. In a word, neutrality reveals a state of awareness that can impact how we perceive and interact with the world. Though, this broad description is far from sufficient concerning the proper and subtle recognition of the benefits and challenges associated with neutrality. Many are calling for more introspection, understanding, and collaboration nowadays. Even in the presence of strong divides, thoughtful leadership may bring individuals, families, businesses, communities, governments, and organizations to the forefront of problem-solving by building trust and communication. Indeed, neutrality can provide great assistance to these various ends.
Conflicts often develop unexpectedly. Moreover, they may evolve slowly or quickly in a number of directions due to both seen and unforeseen factors. Sometimes it isn’t until reflecting on a dispute that we acknowledge related feelings or thoughts such as confusion, frustration, uneasiness, and so on. For instance, certain emotions might be taken into account after thinking that we’ve lost control of circumstances — similarly, when we feel stuck in a predicament. While these kinds of situations can bring forth difficulty, they also offer opportunities to take a step back. In turn, this may enable the depths of neutral reflection (neutrality) where one often arrives at a clear-sighted-awareness. I’ve come to understand that initiating space or ease in this way is essential for practitioners and parties searching to resolve major conflicts and crises. Finding comfort, space, and freedom in the midst of conflict frequently allows one to access critical thinking and creativity more effectively. Interestingly, it appears there are many routes to accomplishing this. Whether theoretical or practical, it can be pointed out that this type of reference to neutrality has been a part of many human traditions for thousands of years. Our nature is no stranger to intuitively grasping neutral contemplation. Thus, giving the invitation to reflect on thoughts, emotions, factors, and possibilities is just one straightforward example of how we can open this door.
People are more prone to resolving conflicts when they are not only a witness to neutrality but when they are genuinely impartial as well. Why is this important? On one hand, it is much harder to trust and communicate when we are closed off. Ponder the following question for example — “can I effectively problem-solve with others if I’m only willing to acknowledge my individual interests and needs?” To a great degree, what makes conflict resolution processes useful is that parties desire to be a part of the decision-making process. This is to say that we enjoy the opportunity to be a part of the possible solution. Humans appreciate being valued. Such a commonality is wonderful and amazing, however, difficulty may arise here as well. In particular, obstacles can emerge when one wants the greater value, or, where one does not reciprocate or demonstrate reverence for others. Perhaps we generally do the latter more so when it comes to our role models, for instance, though we do it less so regarding the everyday people in our lives. This is where neutrality can help by introducing humility. The essence of neutral reflection is clear and pure like pristine waters. Its discovery can allow us to see the whole picture in an impartial manner. A neutral position therefore may uncloak other people in our own reflection and surface the reminder that we all go through the ups and downs together. That said, this understanding doesn’t negate being earnest with what we want. These two things need not be mutually exclusive. In dispute resolution, striking the balance of candidness and respect is generally fundamental to creating harmony, communication, and agreement. Even when folks may be feeling or thinking about things differently, coming to the table with neutrality gives us a chance to build esteem.
It follows that neutrality invites us all into the process. As discussed above, it can be an effective antidote for overcoming bias or a limited view on things. From understanding to forgiveness, perhaps it can be said that reconciliation is generally a key precursor to formulating resolutions. Experientially, it seems that neutrality is an ability that we naturally possess which supports friendly relations. It often takes the pressure off us and strengthens the capacity to be patient and to listen. Further, it may encourage individuals and groups to overcome the idea of risk via remembering our fundamental nature itself. For instance, it is like reintroducing the act of coming together around a campfire to address the primary concerns of a community. We may have a tendency at times to overthink and isolate ourselves when barriers or impasses form within families, groups, and communities. This inevitably weakens buy-in, collaboration, and problem-solving. And yet, it is agreeable to most that we have many shared critical issues in need of meaningful solutions — food security, education, health, and debt to name a few. Conflicts or challenges can be advantageous, especially in the sense that they are vital signals. They typically reveal things that are breaking down and need attention. On that note, I submit here that it is how we choose to deal with them that can be the real difference. Undoubtedly, we could use the input from people of many kinds (with many skill sets) when addressing such dilemmas. Neutrality can help us to establish a productive position of resolving matters that we share in common. Let’s gather around the fire once again.
I remember the myriad reflections that first came about when I began my work as a dispute resolution practitioner. I knew that I possessed passion and ability to facilitate difficult conversations and to conduct agreement making. However, I had no true grasp on how much there was to learn about myself and others along the way. This learning is never ending and I’m very much content with that. For how can one say, “I have found my life’s work and I already understand all there is to know about it”? Surely, the baker learns new recipes as does the doctor gain new methods of treatments to prescribe. It is an honor to serve as a practitioner in a field that involves constant change on many levels (I.e. theoretical, practical, social, experiential, etc.). Notwithstanding the requirement to address deadlines and firm expectations in many cases, my meditations have helped me to see that being an effective practitioner is not always about “getting the deal done”. Rather, it is clear that my role is to consistently support all parties, without favor, in forming resolutions with their own will. Perhaps there is no better way to provide a foundation for self-determination than by maintaining neutrality. Being in neutrality appears to be a valuable life-long endeavor that is very much something to aspire working on even if for purely practical reasons alone. It enables one become more open without reacting too eagerly. It bestows a place to reflect on life’s many circumstances. It brings one home to the innate and vast space of awareness.
With humble admittance, there are significant challenges to neutrality that are noteworthy. For the sake of concise writing, I’ll cover just a few here. One potential concern is that sometimes we simply want or need leadership to motivate us. There are times when we may be better off should someone take the torch and run with it. Despite being helpful at times, this can cause even the best of us to attempt to control facilitative processes whereby trust and collaboration are lost. One sturdy antidote to this concern can be to lean on integrity and flexibility. In conflict coaching, I often have a back and forth conversation with parties about considering new ideas and pathways while circling back during our work together to inquire thereof as needed. Exploring the possibility of new apertures from the get-go, prior to the establishment of neutrality, prepares and encourages folks to have honest dialogue and adaptability. Furthermore, a sound neutrality actually tends to aid a sharing of the torch in whatever fashion fits best for the given situation (especially in the presence of clear incentives). Another thinkable counter-position is that by accepting the radical freedom that comes with neutrality entails that we can always walk away and others can too. Indeed, we broadly seem to appreciate autonomy but sometimes we prefer a kind of restraint or process. Similarly, this may bring about a kind of vulnerability that can go against our instincts. When one is involved in a dispute, for example, allowing things to unfold might be harder to do. As alluded to earlier in this writing, risk can be seen differently when we take a step back sometimes. Risk is of course different from case to case regarding the particular factors at hand – candid discussions and reflections can provide discernment to determine what’s best. Dispute resolution practitioners commonly ask parties to consider the alternatives to agreement. Generally speaking, the power of questions mark the supportive journey of moving through these difficulties. They help us to understand options, and in effect, can sustain both neutrality and process. Recognizing this, taking the chance – fully knowing all possibilities – is worth its weight in gold. I shall face this music. I shall face this music with you as we move together.
Technology has enabled us to share our various interests and needs in ways that would have been hard to imagine centuries ago. Though, many individuals and groups are seeking to adapt when it comes to addressing conflicting interests and needs. Dispute resolution practices may be of assistance to this end. By initiating such practices with neutrality, we may set in motion stronger communication, thoughtfulness, creativity, and flexibility when working to develop resolutions. Given that conflict resolution is an evolving and experimental field, it seems to make sense as to why neutrality may be understood as a foundational aspect. Not only does it guide practitioners in maintaining an ethical approach but it also supports great stillness and discernment for us all. It is a space where changeful happenings can be witnessed impartially. Indeed, while there is still much to learn here, this is not just another whimsical theory. Neutrality can be accessed through our observation. It may be discovered upon taking a step back to notice internal and external present factors whereby we become steadfast even in dire circumstances. It enables genuine peace and clarity. Neutrality is a veritable facilitator of resolution and democratic processes — something we can all be a part of.
CJ Clayton Jr.
(*) American Bar Association. 2005. “Model Standards of Conduct for Mediators”. Pages 1-10. https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/dispute_resolution/dispute_resolution/model_standards_conduct_april2007.pdf
(**) Clayton Jr., CJ. 2019. “Impartiality and Neutrality: A Mountain of Importance”. Clayton Jr. Mediation. www.claytonjrmediation.com/impartiality-and-neutrality-a-mountain-of-importance/
(***) Colorado State Judicial Branch. n.d. “A Party’s Guide to Colorado Court-Ordered Mediation”. Found on https://www.courts.state.co.us — https://www.courts.state.co.us/userfiles/file/Administration/Planning_and_Analysis/Court%20Programs/ODR/Mediation%20Guide%20for%20Colorado%20Courts/APartyGuide.pdf
(****) International Mediation institute. n.d. “Code of Professional Conduct”. https://imimediation.org/practitioners/code-professional-conduct/