The Neutral Mediator

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If any one should be able to exercise neutral objectivity, it should be a professional mediator like Richard Friedlander. But it’s easier said than done.

An urban legend tells us that anything that happens to you has also happened on Seinfeld. Which is quite something for a show that was was about nothing. The same could be said of mediation. Not that it’s about nothing, but the problems of communication also visit Seinfeld. When I was learning the mediator trade in a community setting, a sacred cow mooed that mediators had to share the same ethnicity or gender as the parties to mediate a dispute. To me, this was utter nonsense. After all, mediation is the belief that parties can settle disputes by themselves, that what counts is the mediator’s ability to listen, categorizing is irrelevant, and after all, mediators are neutral.

If I ever believed that categorizing didn’t matter, I was being naive. People are inclined to believe someone of their own background will understand them better than an outsider. And psst!: no mediator is completely neutral.

Profiling also has a major role on Seinfeld, since it’s something we do every day, often without thought: a precondition to reducing the world to a manageable size. For instance, I can’t read every book ever written. The unwitting shadow cast by an author’s name, photograph or bio I find hard to ignore. In legal speak, I am accepting ad hominem evidence: reacting to a person rather than to whatever they might tell me. Thus, he, being a he, is automatically barred from writing on women’s issues; and, of course, vice-versa. And yet, her natural female bias must naturally taint what she says about women, and ditto for men. Hence, I am caught in an illogical cleft-stick of my own making.

Being an outsider does not necessarily disqualify our views any more than being an insider validates them. Sometimes, outsiders can see a forest where insiders see only trees. Ignoring my reading prejudices might open me to worthwhile adventures. Parties that can accept a mediator from another tribe just might resolve their problem. If not, the world isn’t a village; it’s a closet. And not as funny as Seinfeld.


With a Perspective, I’m Richard Friedlander.

Richard Friedlander is a mediator and actor. He lives in the East Bay.