The Balance of Power(s)

July 12, 2017

One important factor in a successful mediation is the balance of power. Any time I move toward mediation with clients, we cover how well they are able to tell their story, stand up for what they think is fair for themselves and their family or other loved ones involved, and how well they’re able to listen to the other parties. It’s important that everybody in the room is able to say everything they need to say without fear of repercussion or some sort of consequence:  often referring to physical danger, so people need to be able to what they need to say, without fear that they’re going to be hurt, not necessarily in the moment (which would be very unusual), but more likely later on, when they get home or the next day.
That’s not the only power imbalance that we can have. Other kinds of imbalances could be financial, so a person might be afraid to stand up for what they think is right or say everything there is to say because they’re afraid that the other part is going to cut off their access to the finances.  Or they might be afraid that the other parent will go home and say things to the children that will be harmful, or possibly hurt the children. They could be afraid that they will be emotionally or verbally abused later on, for the next days or weeks after a mediation session. They might be afraid that the other parent would cut them off from the children or take them away. These are some examples of things that can happen that people might be afraid of, which might prevent them from speaking freely in a mediation session.

Every good mediator will test to find out how people feel about that, and how well they are able to speak freely and openly about what their needs are. However, it’s impossible that power will be totally equal in any given session. There are things going on at all times that create imbalances. For instance, some people are more articulate and better with words, and so can have a certain advantage over the other person in the mediation session. Other people have a better awareness of their finances or business, and so have the upper hand in negotiation around finance or business issues. Some people could have a language advantage where one of the parties has English as their first language and the other has English as their second language, making it more difficult for them to find the words or understand everything happening in a session. Sometimes there’s a difference for people when somebody is not feeling well, and the other person is feeling strong and well-rested which can change the balance in a mediation session as well.

What’s great about mediation is that there is a mediator who is looking at all times for this power imbalance and constantly screening the people in mediation to make sure they are evenly matched in terms of their ability to negotiate. The mediator can do things to give more power, and balance the mediation session, such as giving someone more time to speak, or being assertive with someone who is trying to assert their power. Possibly changing the arrangement or the setup of a session to a shuttle mediation where people aren’t in the room at the same time, or adding support people to help balance the power and give people strength. It could be taking breaks or giving parties more time between sessions to get information or to gather their thoughts. So unlike court, where the more aggressive, more assertive, more articulate lawyer can win the day, in mediation the mediator is working to balance that power so that everybody has an equal say, and an equal voice.

Just one of the many benefits of mediation.


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