Most of us spend a lot of time in our lives giving people advice and seeking advice from others. This is often extraordinarily valuable for the receiver and the giver. I like giving advice and I also like asking people for advice. So it has always been hard for me to resist when my mediation clients ask me what they should do, or what do I think would be a “fair” agreement. Why not, I think? They want the advice and I like giving advice, so what could be the harm?
The problem is just this: When a mediator tells people what to do, he/she is changing the contract from mediation to something else that approaches arbitration. And it’s arbitration without the usual protections one has in arbitration, such as a lawyer and rules of procedure. Further, it is changing the relationship from one of equality to hierarchy. I know, if they don’t like the advice, they can always reject it. This however doesn’t take into account the vulnerability that people feel when they are in conflict, just wanting the conflict to go away, particularly if they trust the mediator. It also robs the parties of the opportunity to have to think about their own solution, and to find a way to meet the other party at that level. And to know that, in the end, they did not surrender the power to decide to someone else.
My commitment to this refusal to decide comes from a deep faith, borne out by much experience, that in the end, people are better at making their own decisions and will be more satisfied if they do that than surrender that power to someone else. It also comes from a belief that in fact, they understand their own lives far better than anyone from the outside ever could, and if we, and they, can stand the tension of working through whatever is necessary to find that, we are giving them a great gift. That means that I have to find my own satisfaction as a mediator in finding a way to share all of my experience and help them avail themselves of that without turning it into something more. That’s hard, but in the end, that has been what has sustained me in this work for almost forty years.