Neutral Parties

Susan Dearborn

Director of the Pacific Family Mediation Institute

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

I feel that unless we can come in and recognize that we are apart of the dynamic that when we come in there is no truly impartial position. Once we come in and begin to interact with people, we are in the dynamic. So I think we're blind siding ourselves if we think that we can come in and be as though we are behind a wall in a science experiment, I don't believe we can. Even in that kind of experimental work, especially in the social sciences, the awareness that someone is behind the wall, tailors the responses. So when you're there in person, you can't realistically think that that does not have an effect and change the context and the climate in which agreements can be made, or not made as the case may be.

I think unless we are involved when we come in, we are objects of suspicion. I think right now, in 2003, we are suspect; we are suspect all around the world. So how are we going to go on with our word all around the world? And I think the only way we are going to do it is by making ourselves more transparent and known individually. That means getting our fears, our concerns on the table with the parties along with whatever expertise we feel we may have to offer. Maybe that will be helpful and maybe that will not be, but I think that decision to be involved needs to be a joint decision, so we're in a sense part of the circle at the table. We're not at the pinnacle of a triangle with 2 parties, in some measure, hopefully equi-distant apart. I think that's a very unrealistic expectation, and I think as we look toward a more global not only economy but more global interactions that we need to think of ourselves as all part of a circle.


While it's true you can teach people a process model to follow, that may have nothing to do with the needs of the parties. Especially as we work cross-culturally and in different communities in this culture, the chance of a model hitting on the satisfaction of needs becomes very small.

It works reasonably well if you have a fairly homogenous culture and you know, if people look like the way you could progress on a model, but since they don't, you really need to throw people back on what are their own resources. It certainly fits them there and the questions I posed during the training had to do with what are you willing to share about yourself?

Even with folks who have mediated for a long time and have learned an initial forty hours, and then have gone into their experimental work and so on, the willingness to share anything about themselves, even if they have children, it's frightening for them. All their training has said, "You're in neutral, you're impartial, and you're out of it, it's their dispute." Especially people from other cultures are not going to be very trusting of you, who are you? I mean, officials that they've run into often when they've emigrated here have been very frightening and they've gone to anybody who's official. Or the official has come to them and have removed people from their family, and they've never seen them again. So not sharing something that's apart of you may not be appropriate in these family settings in which people are coming.