The Importance of Trust in Mediation

From the moment they enter into a conflict, mediators strive to gain the trust of the parties. Throughout the mediation they work to build and maintain the parties’ trust of the mediation process, the mediators, and between the parties themselves. When trust levels are high, parties are less defensive and more willing to share information with other parties at the mediation table and in private sessions with the mediator — information that may be crucial to finding a mutually acceptable solution.

How important is trust in mediation? Experienced mediators who have addressed the issue tend to speak with a single voice. Canadian mediator Alan Gold put it succinctly when he said, “The key word is ‘trust.’ Without it, you’re dead. Without it, stay home!”1 Gold was referring specifically to collective bargaining, but for all types of mediation, no single attribute is more important in most sectors of mediation than the ability to build trust.

Sources of Trust

There are three basic sources of mediator trust.

1. If a mediating organization has a good reputation, a mediator representing that organization can expect a certain level of trust from the disputing parties, even before interacting with them.
2. A mediator’s personal reputation can also help to build trust. In the North American mediation model, trust may be based on the mediator’s reputation for being a fair and effective neutral, someone who enters the conflict as an outsider, conducts the mediation process, and then leaves. Other cultures prefer what John Paul Lederach refers to as “insider partials,” third parties who have connections to both sides and who can help in establishing communication and understanding between the adversaries. In this alternative model, trust comes as a result of familiarity with the parties and the situation, and of involvement with the parties before, during, and after the settlement is achieved.2
3. Most important, trust is earned through a mediator’s behavior during the mediation process. Effective mediators pay close attention to the ways in which they are building trust, and carefully weigh the possible consequences before taking any action that might counteract their trust-building efforts. Once lost, trust can be very difficult to restore.

How Mediators Build Trust with the Parties

In considering how to gain the trust of the parties, it may help to reflect upon the qualities and behaviors of the people you trust the most. For example, I find it easiest to trust people who (a) treat me with dignity and respect; (b) are like me; (c) behave as though they like and care about me; (d) don’t hurt me and protect me from being hurt by myself or others; (e) have no interests that conflict with mine; (f) listen to and understand me; (g) help me solve my problems when I ask them to do so and (j) are reliable and do what they promise to do in a timely manner. Applying some of these principles to mediation, some mediators can earn trust in several key ways:

• Treat the parties equally, with respect and dignity at all times.
• Create an environment that makes the parties feel comfortable and safe.
• Let each party know the mediator is listening to them, understands their problem and how they feel about it, cares about their problem, and can serve as a resource to help them resolve that problem.
• Show that the mediator has no stake in the outcome of the dispute that will prevent the parties from reaching an agreement that serves each of their interests.
• Never fix blame, put down, or judge the parties, or tell them what they must do.
• Ask non-threatening, open-ended questions.

Balance the mediation process by:

• Making certain the parties understand the mediation process.
• Permitting the parties to discuss the problem without interruption.
• Protecting the parties from threats, intimidation, or disrespectful behavior during the mediation.
• Always demonstrating impartiality.

Mediating when Trust Is Lacking

Can mediators function when they lack the trust of one or more parties? They can, even though their effectiveness may be impaired. Sometimes a party that does not trust the mediator will agree to come to the table in the hopes that the mediator will (1) be able to “educate” and influence the other party, (2) control the other party’s behavior away from the table, or (3) help buy time. Sometimes a party has no better alternative than to work with the mediator. At times, parties in highly visible cases are under pressure to demonstrate good faith and agree to mediation. In these cases, mediators seek ways to overcome the lack of trust so that they can have a positive impact on the conflict.

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by Richard Salem
1 Alan Gold, “Conflict in Today’s Economic Climate,” Proceedings of the Ninth Annual Meeting of the Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution (1981).
2 Lederach, John Paul. “Who Mediates in Developing Countries?” Conflict Resolution Notes. Vol. 6, No. 4. April 1989. Pp. 82-83, summarized by Mariya Yevsyukova at http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/example/lede6577.htm.

Richard Salem has been active as a mediator, trainer and consultant in conflict management since 1968, when he was appointed Midwest Director of the U.S. Community Relations Service (CRS). Salem is a contributor to Beyond Intractability which is an online “encyclopedia” compiling easy-to-understand essays on almost 400 topics which explain the dynamics of conflict along with available options for promoting more constructive approaches.