Virginia's Judicial System

Can Mediators Really Be Neutral After September 11, 2001?

t doesn't take a clinical psychologist to conclude that anyone who was not deeply moved and personally touched by the vision of America being hit between the eyes when the two World Trade Center towers crumbled on September 11, 2001 probably doesn't possess that minimum amount of compassion and empathy needed by a mediator for any matter in any situation.

Further, the two of us feel traumatized. We would feel traumatized even if we hadn't ever mediated in the very section of the Pentagon Building where the terror plane struck with such devastating force. We would feel traumatized even if we did not have dear ones living in New York City. We would feel traumatized even if our son-in-law's best friend and the friend's pregnant wife had not been on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center. Americans are traumatized and angry. People all over the world and in all walks of life are traumatized and angry … And hurt … And in pain … And not feeling very objective or impartial about their world views - including mediators.

Referring to the bio-terror threat, David Ropeik, head of Harvard's Center for Risk Analysis, is quoted in the Washington Post about the danger from fear itself: "There is risk from fear ... it's the emotional factor that really colors your opinion. It may not match the actual risk but it's totally valid and understandable."

How do we as citizens respond to the ultimate 9-1-1 call we received on 9-11-01? How do we as a profession deal with our fear, anger, upset, and pain in such a way as to not let it interfere with our special function as neutral facilitators when we feel very partial about some things down deep in our souls? How do we leave the macro view of the challenges of a new world we live in so we can focus on the micro view of the parties and their issues before us?

Uncertainty is now ingrained into our collective psyches since September 11. Tom Brokaw in the New York Times recently said that he feels as uncertain now as he did 40 years earlier following the nightmares of Viet Nam and the challenges of Watergate. Brokaw articulated a thought we all probably share - whether or not we would admit it ... "knowing only that change is coming again in forms we cannot foresee."

What will this change mean to our growing yet still young profession? The psychologists and counselors would tell us not to repress our feelings, but rather to express our anger and pain and seek the assistance of others when we feel the need. They would say that there is power in empathy and solace in spirituality and comfort in verbalization. But would they understand the special ethical requirements of our unique community of so-called "neutrals"? Could they know that it is unethical for us to move forward on a matter about which we cannot devote full attention and our best efforts? Would they know that we are not supposed to let our personal feelings get in the way of parties' feelings and communications? Could they know that an oath of confidentiality requires us to be silent and circumspect about what may have been triggered in the mediation space that hurts us?

Please do not read on if you expect answers from this piece. We share here some of our thoughts in order to help ourselves and our colleagues acknowledge the new reality of everything in our lives and in our work since the horror of September 11, 2001 - even the new reality of our function as mediators.

Granted, most of us will not serve as "peacemakers" between the U.S. and the Taliban, or between the Chechyens and the Russians, or between the Israelis and Palestinians - but is it so far-fetched that we will not see and hear disputes involving people of ethnic origins, religions or viewpoints different from and antithetical to our own? Isn't it possible we will be called upon to deal with parties or issues which resonate to us in an unpleasant way because of the background of the parties or the nature of the issue? Does our ethical responsibility as mediators require us to forsake our opinions as to who or what is right in national and international issues? ... Or to have a "position" about how this country should deal with people from certain ethnic or religious backgrounds especially if we can't help feeling frightened or angry about something involving them or their forefathers or their politics?

Mediators are, after all, as human as others we would hope in spite of our responsibility to disconnect from exterior pressures while we sit in the so-called "neutral" chair in the mediation room. It would seem that neutrality - and its cousin impartiality - require the ability to mentally remove oneself from non-party issues. Neutrality and impartiality do not allow mediators the luxury of basking in our own issues - because somehow that could affect the mediator's commitment to the success of the parties in maximizing the resolution potential of the process. Aren't we as a profession committed to a higher power - not necessarily in the religious sense of the term, but in the spiritual sense of peacemaking at some level - even in the micro world of cases between parties and/or organizations? Assuming this is true, how can we use our skills and knowledge to promote peacebuilding, to promote dialogue to improve and address racial tensions, and to promote the understanding of other cultures and religions?

Both of us have mediated since September 11; however, not at the Pentagon. We don't know how we are going to feel the next time we are called to the Pentagon to mediate, but we can both say that if we are not in a mental place to be able to give the mediation process our best attention - in spite of sadness or fear - then we should not go there. We both feel that, if the issues of the terror threat or related topics come up in the mediation room, we should acknowledge what happened and that we too feel upset and concerned, but that we are prepared to do our best to assist the parties and the process.

It is difficult to conclude these thoughts. There is a temptation to ruminate about the challenges of our new and scary world; however, as much as we decry the terminology "the bottom line", it is the bottom line for mediators to be able to adequately function in their capacity which is the test for whether or not we should proceed in any case. We would not be so naive or rigid as to say that external pressures don't affect mediator performance. We can only conclude that, if the mediator is having difficulty dealing with his or her own thoughts about America's new challenges or any other issue external to the parties' issues, it is time for him or her to step down.

Mediators are supposed to be special people. In these tough times, we all will have many opportunities to prove just how special we may really be. Included in our thoughts about where opportunities for our assistance might lie, we should ask ourselves what proactive things we might do in our own communities to lend our talents and skills to building bridges of understanding, tolerance of differences and better comprehension by all Americans including our neighbors of the power and possibilities which arise from the very nature of our great, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation.

Charles P. "Chips" Lickson JD, Ph.D., a former trial attorney turned mediator, is the founder of Mediate-Tech, Inc ("MTI")., a long-term Front Royal, Virginia based national conflict resolution services, consulting and training firm. Chips is the author of six books including Ironing It Out: Seven Simple Steps to Resolving Conflict and the upcoming workbook Mediation: The Relationship Awareness Approach. Bryane Miller Lickson is also a principal of MTI and also a Judicial Council certified mediator and author of three books. She is completing her doctorate in ethics. Bryane and Chips are married and often co-mediate cases together.

This page last modified: October 18, 2002