by William E. Sparks
In a world of constant conflict, mediators are often called upon to resolve disputes. In doing so, mediators strive for neutrality and should exert no influence concerning the outcome of any dispute in which they mediate. But does that really happen? Are mediators honestly neutral or do they inadvertently affect the outcome of their mediations by priming and reframing the issues that alter the outcome of a dispute?
Mediators have unique problem solving theories and styles which commonly fall into three groups: facilitative, evaluative, and transformative. Each discipline employs a process through which mediators apply skills associated with their school of knowledge as a neutral. For example, facilitative mediators employ a structured process to find a resolution. They ask questions, validate and normalize points of view, search for interests underneath positions, and assist parties to find and analyze options for resolution. They neither make recommendations nor give advice. Instead, the mediator is in charge of the process while the parties control the outcome. On the other hand, evaluative mediators employ a process similar to a settlement conference. They assist the parties in reaching a resolution by pointing out strengths and weaknesses in the dispute. They are concerned with the legal rights of the parties instead of a party’s needs or interests. By contrast, transformative mediators employ a process by evaluating the interests and needs of the parties and engage in transforming party positions throughout the mediation process.
Each of these three mediation styles have a common denominator in that they each rely upon humans as the interactive key to facilitate each style during a mediation. Therefore, underneath it all, mediators are not really neutral. Humans are fallible and each mediator comes to the dispute with cognitive biases, emotions, prejudices and beliefs that may or may not be aligned with the parties. Mediators are charged to act as if they can disregard every situation, issue and emotion yet employ complete neutrality. As different as each mediator is, each engages in learned techniques of psychology and communication, and each either consciously or subconsciously engages in the techniques of priming and reframing during the course of mediation.
Priming is employed to refocus attitudes and behavior. Priming occurs when a person is exposed subconsciously to a stimulus that influences perceptions or interpretations of a person or event. Humans can be conditioned to a response or stimuli to behave or act in a certain way. Thus, words or stimuli can be used to precondition a person’s mind through the repetitive use of words or visualizations during mediation. Subliminal messages can trigger the subconscious to react, and a skilled mediator understands and extensively utilizes this form of communication throughout mediation. The most powerful form of priming comes at the beginning of the mediation during the opening statement to describe the ground rules and principles of mediation. A mediator commonly employs certain words in the opening statement such as: flexible, reasonable, rational, goal, and resolution, to name a few. However, when certain words are repeated over and over and used in either a positive or negative connotation, a mediator primes the parties to react and may inadvertently affect the outcome of mediation and void the mediator of neutrality.
Framing, by contrast, is employed to change the conceptual or emotional setting or viewpoint and to place it in very different, positive frame. Also known as refocusing, mirroring, and looping, reframing can detoxify an issue by dropping unproductive accusations and reframing them into general problem solving and describing issues in more general or specific terms. For example, parties in mediation hear toxic words from each other, and profound strong personalities may soften and react in unique ways when their words are reframed in front of their opposition. Likewise, weak personalities may be empowered to engage and rationally negotiate through the reframing of their position.
It can be argued that mediators overexert their role through priming and reframing, and that priming and reframing inadvertently destroys neutrality. However, the bias we all have as humans continues to remain in each of us, even a mediator, and those biases cannot be checked at the door. How mediators control their bias during the course of mediation is critical, and although it is effective to prime and reframe participants in mediation, participants must realize that the human mind is ill-prepared to be truly neutral in all conflicts to be resolved. Further, because mediators are also human, it should be recognized that a mediator will be unable to provide the parties with a solution that is totally devoid of bias. However, at the end of the day, priming and reframing is critical to the process of mediation, and the skilled mediator employing these techniques in conflict resolution recognizes the importance of neutrality in reaching a successful outcome.
William E. Sparks is an attorney and mediator at Conflict Resources, PLLC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.