Elephant in the Room – Attending to Power Differences in Mediation
Most mediators would probably agree that the purpose of mediation centrally includes supporting parties in reaching an agreement. Where mediators vary is on what “supporting parties” means and what it takes to reach an agreement.
The issues surrounding reaching an agreement grow in complexity whenever the dispute involves power differences. How would a landlord/tenant mediation be different from one that involves two neighbors? What if one party is a black woman and the other is a white man? What if the black woman is the landlord?
When a significant power gap exists, mediators face the risk of an agreement that doesn’t truly serve everyone – either because not all needs are heard, or because a solution is agreed to that does not actually work.
Early on, when the mediator engages to help the parties hear each other, people with less power often hesitate to name their needs. Think of a dispute involving an employee and a boss. The employee is well aware that the boss may retaliate. Think also of a societal power difference, where both white people and people of color, for example, are socialized to prioritize the needs and comforts of a white person. In either example, the person with more power – the boss or the white person – is more likely to feel free to express themselves in full and expect to be heard.
Later, when focusing on potential solutions, an agreement is only successful if it’s truly voluntary and wholehearted. Any agreement based on fear, shame, guilt, desire for reward, or obligation, is unlikely to sustain itself into the future. In the presence of power differences, the likelihood of a de facto coerced agreement increases dramatically, because people with less power may say “yes” without engaging fully, lacking trust in the possibility of a positive outcome. Also, at the same time, people on both sides of the power gap may say “no” without considering the needs of the situation in full. This can look like a “rebellion” by someone with less power who is adamant about her needs being taken seriously, or someone with more power attempting to control the situation out of anxiety about losing power.
When, on top of this, we take into consideration that mediators tend to be whiter, older, of higher income, and more educated than the general population in the US1, then we can better understand the very “neutrality” of mediation can end up reinforcing the power and dominance of white, middle-class, and Global North norms.2 Unless the mediator actively monitors power differences and intervenes to ensure that all needs are truly on the table and that all agreements are truly voluntary, the process and the outcome of the mediation too often will subtly favor the person in power. This is true even if the mediator is not of a privileged group, as the very norms of the profession align with individualistic, “rational,” and apolitical approaches derived from white, middle-class cultures.
What, then, can you do to increase the chances of all needs being on the table and agreements being wholehearted? The first order of business is to learn about power and privilege, and especially about the history and persistence of structures that systematically prioritize the needs, experiences, perspectives, and norms of some groups over those of other groups. This will help you become familiar with how you yourself may inadvertently and unknowingly contribute to a skewed outcome.3 Only then can you have actual choice when you notice or suspect power differences. In addition, such learning will support you in being able to decode the often-silent expressions of power difference in the room.
Your goal as a mediator remains the same: to support both parties in hearing each other and in reaching an agreement that works for both of them. The way there, once you learn about structural privilege, will often mean compensating for power differences. Here are some elements you might practice:
- To expand the range of forms of expression, perspectives, and voices, you will likely need to step outside your comfort zone to welcome ways of speaking that are not as emotionally even or linear as you are used to. To increase the chances that all needs are included, you will likely need to persist in engaging with the less powerful until you are truly confident that they have expressed all their needs in full.
- Contributing to reaching wholehearted agreements often takes conscious intention to make it easier for the less powerful to say “no,” including slowing down and questioning a “yes” if you have any doubt about it.
- Maintaining everyone’s trust includes consistently reassuring both parties that their needs matter and will be included even while actively working to support the less powerful in coming forward, which can easily create discomfort for the more powerful.
Attending to power differences is tricky for everyone. Without conscious choice, you will likely become part of supporting the comfort of the powerful at cost to the less powerful, thereby interfering with the explicit goal of a mediation. To mediate effectively across power differences, you will ultimately need to develop your own experience and intuition about when and how to talk openly about power differences, including those of rank and those of social group differences such as race, class, and gender. Inevitably, this includes finding your own way of dealing with the discomfort of the powerful. What you will most gain from doing this work is your own sense of integrity in contributing to a world that works for all.
 For volunteer mediators, here is a look at the statistics: http://blog.advancingdr.org/2013/08/volunteer-mediator-research-demographics.html. For professional mediators, this is likely even more pronounced, as many professional mediators are initially trained as lawyers.
 In the dimension of racial inequality in the United States, there is a veritable information explosion on the systemic nature of white privilege. A classic starting point is Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” which you can find as a video here: or googling the article name. Also a classic is Tim Wise’s “White like Me”, both a video and a book. See also: http://www.tolerance.org/magazine/number-46-spring-2014/feature/peggy-mcintosh-beyond-knapsack; http://www.agjohnson.us/glad/what-is-a-system-of-privilege/. You might also consider looking up “Showing up for Racial Justice” for resources.