Neutrality and Objectivity

Neutrality and Objectivity

By Gary Friedman and Katherine Miller

There is no such thing as objectivity, and it is impossible to relate to another human being without the filter of our own subjective experiences. When working with people in conflict, what if we lean into this truth instead of leaning out?  When we work with parties in conflict, our aim is not to be objective, rather it is to be inclusive and curious, exploring the ideas and perspectives of all parties so we can mediate from a place of positive neutrality. 

Each of us has our own bubble full of our own truths based on our experiences and senses. Much of the struggle around neutrality involves staying inside, being connected to all parties, and not being exclusive.  Neutrality calls for us to be advocates for what we see as true, while admitting that what we see as true is affected by our own subjectivity. The Internal V helps us identify and understand our own judgment, feelings, and experiences we use to define our truths, opening us up to a deeper place of connection with the people we are trying to help. When mediating conflict, we can create bubbles for each party and fill them with understanding by going down the “Why Trail” to probe beneath positions, empathize, imagine, suggest, and reframe, helping not only us, but each party, to understand their truths. 

As a neutral, our responsibility is to help parties have the fullest view of the situation possible. It is not our role to tell the parties how to proceed or coerce them into moving forward with the solutions we believe are the best. When we learn to let go of the responsibility for the outcome, the role of mediator can be quite freeing. We can come back to our goal of creating a safe container for parties in conflict to have a conversation that enhances each other’s understanding so they can move forward with a resolution—if they want to.

As we lay the ground rules in the contracting, we must work with parties to define our role, including when to give or not give our opinions as neutrals—and how we share our opinions. We must spend the necessary time walking the walk of proceeding by agreement, where nothing happens without them both agreeing. Ultimately, this creates more opportunity for better understanding of each person, themselves, and the other person—with less risk.

For mediators, moving beyond a façade of objectivity to a place of neutrality requires a sustained commitment to understanding ourselves and the parties we work with. To learn more about objectivity and neutrality in conflict resolution, join us on January 10 for our webinar Neutrality and Objectivity. We will dive into the pros and cons of positive neutrality versus traditional objective neutrality, share techniques to engage parties using positive engagement, and discuss how to deal with judgment as it comes up and blocks connection.

Register for the webinar >>

Read More

Remembering bell hooks, Her Body of Work and its Impact

Remembering bell hooks, Her Body of Work and its Impact

Review by Heba Nimr

bell hooks died last month.  

bell hooks

I first encountered her work in the1980s, through her book Feminist Theory from margin to center“To be in the margin is to be part of the whole, but outside the main body” is the opening line of the book’s preface.  The framing that followed fueled me at that moment and to this day.  She was speaking to feminist theory and movements at that time, but I find the lessons I gleaned relevant to my work as a professional supporting people navigating conflict within their families or organizations.  bell hooks:

  • acknowledged the reality that those spaces are centered around privileged perspectives that “rarely include knowledge and awareness of the lives” of people who live on the margins; 
  • affirmed the wisdom of those on the margins who often see and understand our own circumstances as well as the realities of those at the center, often more than those at the center will ever understand marginal or even their own centered realities
  • encouraged those of us at the margins to own our power and agency, care for and nurture our wisdom and orient / center ourselves around our own struggles and understandings, while paying attention to and learning from and with others marginally located…especially those who live at and recognize the intersections of various marginal and/or centered realities.
  • encouraged those of us at the margins to own our power and agency, care for and nurture our wisdom and orient / center ourselves around our own struggles and understandings, while paying attention to and learning from and with others marginally located…especially those who live at and recognize the intersections of various marginal and/or centered realities.

That text and the labor of love and liberation of so many other Black feminists in the 1970s and 1980s was the context for Kimberle Crenshaw’s naming, in a 1989 legal forum, of intersectionality, which has now become a ubiquitous and often misconstrued concept.

Whether you are familiar with or new to bell hooks’ work and particular style, that was often both beloved and controversial, I encourage you to engage with some of the public reflections on her impact, or to return to her own writing or community dialogues.  Below are some links to get you started.  FYI, some may be behind paywalls, and/or advertisements, and some have many other embedded links that can take you down the internet rabbit holes.  

If you only have time for brief reads, I found the obituaries, The Courage of bell hooks and The Life-Changing Curiosity of bell hooks, as well as the tributes at Yes, She Was a Powerful Woman! A Dedication to bell hooks and this reflection on hooks as a foundational figure moving and reminiscent.

Democracy Now! did an approximately 15 minute story featuring some video and audio excerpts of hooks in her own words, along with a lovely photo slideshow and interview with hooks’ longtime close friend, Beverly Guy Sheftall.

The New School at Eugene Lang College offers a YouTube playlist of hours of bell hooks’ talks, lectures and conversations at their campus.  I draw particular attention to the public dialogue with Laverne Cox, an intergenerational conversation where the learning and impact goes in both directions, and where there is mutual admiration and respect alongside differing perspectives and opinions.  For example, while hooks is clear about her distaste for the show in which Cox is part of the acting ensemble, Orange is the New Black, she specifically appreciates the way the show, via Cox’s storyline, represents Black people dealing honestly with conflict in their families.  I further appreciate that in both this dialogue, and another public dialogue bell hooks has with her peer and longtime friend, john a. powell, Belonging Through Connection, we see hooks engaging in the inevitable messiness of ongoing learning – where she struggles a bit with naming and gendering trans experiences.

Watching or listening to these dialogues is an investment of time, ~1 – 2 hours each, but I do think that witnessing bell hooks’ learning curves, in community, is a profound part of understanding her life and her impact.  The imperative of nourishing community as a form of living and loving justice was a central message of her teachings.  

Finally, if you’re inclined to directly engage her written work, there’s a lot to choose from, including book and essay length texts, pop culture articles, children’s books, etc.—she was prolific.  An outline of her work in book form, with reader reviews, is available at Goodreads and Tao Leigh Goffe has offered her perspective on nine essential bell hooks pieces to read, To Read bell hooks was to Love Her.  Internet searches will direct you to other such lists, and further reflections and commentary.

bell hooks may no longer physically be with us, but her legacy continues.  May she rest in peace and power.

Read More

Inside Out: The Relationship between Inner and Outer

Inside Out: The Relationship between Inner and Outer

By Gary Friedman

As human beings, our experiences shape how we understand not only our own contexts, but those of the people we engage with. Accessing self is an oft ignored central skill in conflict resolution, one that expands our repertoire of how to help people we are working with, rooted in a place of understanding our reactions to people. 

Working with people in conflict evokes our own emotions, including difficult ones, and accessing self in the midst of a conflict can help keep us from acting on reactions that can hinder the help we are trying to provide to conflicting parties. Furthermore, this provides a central place for us to return to, without holding other people in narrow contexts. 

We can learn much about what is happening inside of us through our physical reactions—the mind can fool you, but the body doesn’t lie. The ability to regularly and easily know what is inside of us requires focus that can be honed through meditation. Finding a deeper place inside ourselves where our motivations to mediate conflict have taken root offers a stable foundation we can return to and helps avoid burnout.

In the Understanding-Based Model, we also take a systemic approach, “going down the V”, that helps us deal with strong reactions that can create blocks between and even alienate the people we work with. As tensions and turmoil rise in conflict, we are less susceptible to being swept away by the things that can affect us—such as feeling a need to take over or to withdraw completely. Through accessing self, we can return to operating in a way we want to work with conflict. 

To learn more about how to work from the inside out, consider joining Norman Fischer and I for our webinar on November 9. We will show the systemic way the body is the entry point for us to deepen ourselves from a place not obscured by our own reactions and inability to see what is happening outside ourselves. We will also talk about dealing with discomfort, as well identifying and working with bias towards parties.

Read More

I Knew What Would Happen

I Knew What Would Happen

Catherine Conner and Katherine Miller

We all come into a conflict with our own stories, whether we are the parties, a mediator, or another professional. The parties each have their own story about themselves, each other and the conflict. And as they begin, the conflict professional starts to form a hypothesis about the situation. Parties also may come in with a story about the professional, created from internet research or word of mouth. 

Even the space where we work through conflict can affect the stories we tell ourselves and each other. With much of our work moving online, backgrounds during virtual meetings can give us another glimpse into the lives involved—it’s a mess in the background, their location is richly decorated, there are people milling about, etc.—these observations also help shape our stories. 

So there are at least three complex stories going on in the room simultaneously —more if other parties or professionals are in the room. These stories often include strong expectations about what will happen in the process or in the outcome of the conflict. Paying attention to our stories can deepen the understanding needed to work through the parties’ conflict.

We often believe our stories to be “The Truth”, or at least substantially accurate.  And because of confirmation bias, we strengthen our belief by grasping onto facts or statements that are in alignment and ignoring ones that are inconsistent. It may also be that family or friends have helped to shape our narrative and cemented our belief in it. We then predict what will happen based on our faith in our story. We know what will happen.

The conflict professional can help shine a light on the assumptions and beliefs underlying stories and make the implicit explicit. As we seek to understand what is important to someone and why, we are also helping them to examine their story and decide whether to “edit” it.  And we can also examine the story we have been creating and pay attention to how it is affecting our work with the parties. What is the story I am telling myself about what will happen and should I hold it in a different way?

Helpful intuition may arise out of your story about the people but in an undefinable way. For example.if you feel in your gut the power dynamic is off in the room, it probably is even if you can’t describe how. You may be able to simply state, “something seems off,” or you may just stay open and observant. However, trusting intuition can also be tricky, as our hypothesis about what will be happen or what is going on could be off because of prior experiences, our own desire to help, transference, countertransference, or distractions. For the professional, recognizing our own implicit and explicit biases is also pivotal and one element of ourselves that we must continually strive to be more cognizant of. 

When we pay attention to stories, we must do so in a way that is in alignment with the Understanding-Based Model, which prioritizes the agency and autonomy of the parties in conflict to solve their problem. In our webinar, I Knew What Would Happen, we will discuss more about the role of stories and provide insights on working with intuition and how to check and work through biases rooted in every story in the room. 

Read More

Intimate Partner Violence and Consensual Dispute Resolution

Intimate Partner Violence and Consensual Dispute Resolution

By Antoinette Delruelle, attorney and mediator with the New York Legal Assistance Group.

Before becoming a mediator, I represented victims of domestic violence (DV) and intimate partner violence (IPV[1]) in family cases and divorces for nearly two decades for the New York Legal Assistance Group, a free legal services organization in New York City. From this experience, the prevalence of IPV became clear—it transgresses race, ethnicity, religion, age and socio-economic background. According to the CDC, a quarter of women and ten percent of men experience DV or IPV in their lifetimes. As a divorce attorney, I find violence even more prevalent.  It is imperative for mediators to understand IPV, how to screen for it, and how to determine whether mediation is the right course of action for a couple.

A pattern of coercive control is the hallmark of IPV. This control is exerted through various means including physical, psychological, emotional, financial and sexual.  Mediation is based on five fundamental pillars—autonomy, good faith/fair dealing, judgment, information, and safety—and when coercion and control are the modus operandi for one of the parties in a conflict, these pillars will be wobbly or completely non-existent. As consequence, not only will mediation fail, but it can bring more harm to the survivor of IPV and their children.

Separation is the most dangerous time for survivors and we cannot mediate if a party is unsafe. For the person causing harm, the goal of the mediation is to maintain contact with the survivor for as long as possible in order to continue to coerce and control. Since the mediator has no power, the person causing harm could take advantage of the mediation process and endlessly change their mind and never agree on anything, drawing out the process to keep the survivor in their control.  A court might take a long time, but in the end, a judge will make a decision.  

Furthermore, parties need to be able to say what is important to them in mediation in order to reach a fair agreement that will last.  When there is IPV, it can be unsafe for the survivor to disagree and explain why. Mediation also requires mutual exchange of information (including financial) which can be particularly challenging when the person causing harm is the gatekeeper to the couple’s finances. Another common source of tension in the mediation process revolves around parenting. If one parent is fearful of leaving a child in the custody of another parent, mediation would not be appropriate since the mediator has no authority to impose any conditions or certain behavior on any party.

These dynamics occur on a spectrum, with some cases being more extreme and dangerous than others. When screening cases, I try to find out how strong the five pillars of mediation are, using the SAFer Mediation Discussion Guide  developed by the Battered Women’s Justice Project. Rather than unilaterally making the decision about whether to mediate, I give the person information about what is needed to successfully mediate (ex: can you disagree and speak your mind?  Is the other party able to follow through on agreement and share important financial information? Etc.) so the party may come to the conclusion on their own that mediation would not work and why.  I explore autonomy, good faith/fair dealing, and judgment before asking questions about violence.  If I hear that the foundational pillars for mediation are not present, I don’t have to ask the painful questions about violence which we know re-traumatize survivors.

The danger of mediating the wrong case goes beyond a question of safety (though that would be sufficient to prevent mediation), as the mediation itself could change the facts and make it harder for the survivors and their children when they go to court. As mediators, we need to make screening as ubiquitous as the medical history our doctors take when they see us. This will allow us to make better decisions about whether or not to mediate.  It can also help us structure the mediation to strengthen wobbly pillars where it is appropriate (ex: the parties’ attorneys should be in the room or the mediation should take place after discovery was done in court). Finally, the screening gives the survivors the information they need to make informed decisions about the next steps in their case.

If you’d like to learn more about this topic, webinar recording is available for purchase here: https://understandinginconflict.org/store/.


[1] DV involves parties who are living together.  IPV involves intimate partners who do not live together.

Read More

Looping—Listening to Understand

Looping—Listening to Understand

By Katherine Miller and Melanie Rowen

When parties are in conflict, often one of the biggest hurdles for the mediator is to help parties understand the other’s perspective. This includes understanding the matters of importance to each person in their conflict. Looping—listening to understand—is one of the most transformative tools in our conflict resolution box and this technique is something that we’ve incorporated into our everyday lives—professionally and personally. Not only do we loop the parties as mediators, we also teach the parties in conflict to loop each other during the mediation process. 

The loop of understanding entails four steps. One person, we’ll call them Aiden, loops the other, whom we’ll call Nour. Aiden asks Nour questions about how they perceive the situation and what is important to them. Nour then responds, while Aiden’s goal is to understand what Nour is saying. Aiden then offers their understanding by sharing what they have learned from Nour in their own words rather than parroting what has been said. During this process, Aiden observes Nour’s reaction. Aiden then checks in with Nour to find out if Aiden’s loop was accurate. If not, Aiden then asks Nour to clarify their understanding, which provides Nour an opportunity to share what they believe Aiden has properly understood and elaborate on anything else pertinent to this exchange that has been missed. In turn, Aiden polishes their understanding, and this process continues until both parties are satisfied there is understanding. 

Looping is a practice that opens us up to empathy and is relevant in many scenarios when working with others in situations beyond conflict. It provides an opportunity to more deeply understand what is important to other people and why, and allows space to explore the emotions involved. Therapists, journalists, doctors, nonprofit leaders, and others have incorporated this impactful practice into how they work with others.

Want to learn more? Watch our webinar on looping anytime: https://understandinginconflict.org/store/.

Read More

Anti-Racism Work is Conflict Work

Anti-Racism Work is Conflict Work

By Catherine Conner, Natalia Lopez-Whitaker, Lacey Wilson

While the lenses of race, equity, and culture have opened widely this last year, we do not live in a post-racist society and as conflict resolution professionals, we all exist in spaces that intersect with white supremacy on multiple levels. We must bring sustained anti-racism work into our conflict work. 

Anti-racism tries to think outside of current systems and policies to build something different. However, the challenges lie in the reality that current systems and policies were built to benefit one set of people. A sustained commitment to anti-racism work requires a strategy through awareness, education, and behavior change. 

The three of us came together in 2016, as part of a group of six conflict resolution professionals in the Bay area dedicated to having difficult conversations about race to be more conscious of biases and privilege. Over the years, our group evolved into our Real Talk team and we helped—and continue to help—each other identify blind spots from our own biases. Through clarity and self-reflection, this process became a vehicle for understanding and empathy. Throughout these last several years, we have seen that the more transformative moments happen when spending time in conversation with people and building relationships. 

Conversation offers an opportunity to go deeper. It is a dialogue that requires people to show up in the space and engage, rather than plowing forward. This includes stopping and reflecting and taking the time to process when things do not feel right. We do want to note that for sustained dialogue, a critical element to continuing this work is the ability to do your own healing work—especially for BIPOC folks.

We can come in with the motivation and drive to be anti-racist and change everything and so we want to move right away to action; however, this sense of urgency is actually a way of avoidance and a characteristic of white supremacist culture. Anti-racism work is conflict work and part of that engagement includes working through your own avoidance. 

A place we recommend starting is to bring anti-racism down in scale and think about who you’re in the room with in that moment. People tend to think about bigger pictures—”let’s do this good thing for this group of people outside of my environment.” Instead, start by thinking about your immediate circle of influence, and drilling it down to just who is in front of you at that moment.

Anti-racism work also requires recognizing the structural aspects around you that you can influence or change, such as what is happening in your workplace. For white people, your work begins in unpacking how you have contributed unconsciously to racism and the perpetuation of white supremacy. Part of this is accepting and examining what you have done in the past that caused harm and using this understanding as the foundation to help you figure out how you will work differently in the future and what you will repair, which goes hand-in-hand with healing.

As conflict resolution professionals, we need to continually develop our self-awareness and meet people where they are at. This includes not making assumptions about a person’s skills, knowledge, or courage about having a conversation about race and racism. What we have shared here is only a tip of the iceberg. If you would like to learn more about how to integrate anti-racism into your work, you can purchase a recording of our webinar, Being an Anti-Racist Conflict Professional. We take the next step in closely examining our own lives, practices and work habits. We also explore how to maintain an sustained awareness of race, equity, and culture every day and what we need to change in our professional environments to be anti-racist in our everyday work lives as conflict professionals.

Read More