Mediation Reflections:  The Importance of Being Neutral 

Sara Barnes

Lead Mediator 

Recently a divorce mediation session got sidetracked.  At least to me, that’s what seemed to be happening at the time. 

We were in the middle of talking about a substantive aspect of dividing assets and liabilities—this is often the most time-consuming part of a divorce.  One word seemed to cause the energy in the room to change.  To me it seemed like we were now in the flashback part of the movie when the backstory starts to be revealed.

The clients began going back and forth about something that had happened long ago.  They were still angry.  They were still hurt.  They were accusatory and raw toward each other as they kept rolled back through the rocky, painful memories.  Sadness.  Residual pain.  Anger. Bitterness.

Here’s the place in the mediation process I tell the trainee mediators to stop looking at the clients, to refrain from the natural tendency to want to know the story.  “Watch the mediator.” Is my guidance.

As the mediator with this divorcing couple I had to make sure I was providing the clients with the service we promise based on our principles. 

  • Confidential. √ 

  • Self-determined. √

  • Voluntary. √ 

  • and Neutral…

Was I staying neutral?  I check my thoughts, am I siding with one over the other?  I don’t think so.  How about my body language, could it be misinterpreted?  Sit squarely and make sure I look at both equally with compassion.  Have any of my biases been triggered?  I don’t think so, both issues they are articulating seem equally familiar but not pushing any buttons that cause me to veer in the non-neutral direction. This had to be a split-second check-in with myself.  

Next. What was my role at the moment as the neutral person in the room? 

Here’s what I did.  I watched for about three minutes.  They were communicating, however painfully.  No one was being bullied—it seemed equally difficult.  Once the words started being less energetically lobbed, a natural pause came. Here’s what I said slowly and calmly: “This sounds like a potent area for both of you.“ They nodded, looking tired. “I am not a therapist.  As your mediator I can summarize what you both have said to see if this can help us to decide (the topic on the table.) “  

This seemed to work, and I went on to neutrally summarize what each had said.  Checking with each when I put forward their thoughts, removing the incendiary language and using a matter of fact tone.  At the end I said, “What did you think of that summary?”  More relaxed now, they accepted the summary, and both said they wanted to get back to negotiating.

Neutrality is not simple.  As mediators each situation provides new challenges and food for thought.  I think I successfully met the neutrality expectation in this situation—on any day of the week I could fail.  We are all human and fallible—that’s one reason we usually co-mediate.  When one person drops the ball, however unintentional, the other can pick it up and run with it.

It is important to be neutral in mediation.  Thanks to our clients for putting their trust in Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program.