Innovation In Mediation Through Narrative Intervention. Demystifying The Neutrality Principle

Abridged version in English of the original


This article deals with the ability of narrative intervention to transform the stories of the persons who resort to mediation. It aims at demystifying the required neutrality for mediators to intervene in a dispute presented by the parties in a conflict. Hypothesizing during the initial interview facilitates the discourse of the parties and contributes to reduce uncertainty about the process. The mediation intervention occurs in an encounter space created thanks to impartiality and equidistance, with mediation strategies like the understanding of the circular causality in family relationships proposed by the circular-narrative school and the transformative school. A link between mediation and resilience, as shown in this article, may be established.


Keywords: Mediation. Narrative. Impartiality. Circular Causality. Resilience

Epistemological basis of the narrative approach

The narrative approach enjoys plays and important role in mediation thanks to authors like Cobb, Winslade or Monk, who base their practice on a soundly elaborated theory. Its progressive consolidation has made it to be considered as a school in and of itself that fosters open dialogue aimed at changing people’s discourse (Moore, 2014, p. 50-52).

Social constructionism provides conflicts with a vision of the importance of personal narratives as a way to give life experiences a sense and a meaning. This theory gives emotions paramount importance as it claims that «they constitute social life per se» (Gergen, 1996, p. 232).

Narratives constitute «cultural artefacts» (Winslade & Monk, 2008, p. 99) that are normally associated to a reductionist vision of culture. The constructionist analysis assumes that parties have the ability to generate differentiated creative solutions for the prevailing cultural discourse (Monk & Winslade, 2013, p. 26).

Precisely, one of the options among these creative solutions is the construction of a new narrative discourse (Winslade & Monk, 2000). This new discourse may generate a change in the connexion of new positive emotions that, eventually, will have an impact on the empowerment of people that face a conflict situation.

The beginning of the intervention; hypothesis as a guide for the initial interview

Haynes mentioned the opportunity to formulate a hypothesis related to what is going on, «based on the information available «(Haynes, 1997, p. 54), as a starting point of the research conducted in mediation interviews. According to our perspective, we advocate a hypothesis concept that is linked to its etymological root, i.e. assumption, and we explicitly get by without its value of truth or falseness.

The mediators who uphold a hypothesis can be more consistent throughout the mediation interviews, and don’t get lost in the telling of events. Once a hypothesis is created in the mind of a mediator, questions to verify the hypothesis are asked, and he/she chooses new questions according to the answer given in order to verify the hypothesis (Haynes, 1997, p. 57). This work model becomes extremely important for narrative mediators; the ethical ground of their work is based, as we will discuss further, on reflexion rather than neutrality (Monk & Winslade, 2013, p. 18).

The construction of alternative narratives during a mediation intervention

Narrative school mediators favour the construction of an alternative story about relations based on the perspective that a future reality can be built with the parties in the conflict; to this end, they use equidistance, equity and impartiality.

Considering this approach, conflicts arise when there is a change in the role or function a person plays in the family system11. The way this system works is manifested in a specific story that is considered as primary or «the original one». This original narrative has a great impact on any new event or fact that occurs afterwards (White & Epston, 1993).

Analysing a conflict entails the need to intervene on the prevailing story the parties bring to mediation. Usually, stories of our lives provide us with intentions, hopes, wishes, dreams, understandings and misunderstandings that manifest through language (Goolishian & Anderson, 1994). A conflict arises for a person when his /her role changes and this change in function produces new adaptations in the family system. That is, each person embraces the events or facts within a series of narratives, which confirms the first narrative built, the so-called «original narrative» will determine the stories people tell where an «original narrative» has a great power to link to other events or facts (White & Epston, 1993).

Conflict causes many of these aspects of our life experience be out of the prevailing story, which prevents people from visualising it. Recovering the whole range of event, feelings or intentions (what White calls «extraordinary events») is done by externalising the problem.

This externalisation technique favours the description of these events and the description of their relations from a new perspective that is not filled with the problem, which allows an alternative story of the family life to be told, a story that is more attractive for the family members (White & Epston, 1993, p. 54)12. This new «liberating» narrative inexorably emerges from the contradiction with the prevailing story a person might have developed. This mediation intervention is used by the Harvard School when separating the person from the problem to different ends (Fisher, Ury & Patton, 1998). Identifying specific or exceptional events can be triggered by the request to externalise the problem, where the prevailing description, «filled with problems», can cause a person to analyse the facts or have «problem free» relationships. This process, then, can be started from:

  1. Seeking the exception to the influence of the problem on the life and relationships of a person.
  2. Dissociating from the problem and the difficulties encountered. That is, requesting a different understanding of the prevailing story where people create a new understanding of the facts.
  3. Open a space for forgotten stories to emerge where problems do not rise; these new stories are created based on people’s dreams, wishes, needs, etc.13

Sluzki (2006) considers that in order to guide stories to their better form «the hunger for consistence» should be used.

Thus, the mediation intervention connects to family resilience, understood as the ability to overcome adverse situations, whereby all family members are strengthened and hope for a better situation built on work and effort. Using specific tools14, this variable reflects reflexes and automatisms and also the most deliberate one’s own determination, in which both the means and the end are delicately discerned (McDougall, 1923).

Overcoming neutrality

Mediators play a key role in mediation as they establish equidistance between the parties in the process. This position is achieved thanks to the circular causality of the facts that oppose the parties in the process. The neutral position of a neutral gathering space does not require the mediator’s neutrality as a principle. This space should be based on the mediator active listening to the parties so that they acknowledge and understand each other.

Narrative school mediators favour the creation of future narratives in relationships based on the massage that a future reality can be built with the parties in the conflict. The role of a narrative mediator is backed by the principles of equidistance, equity and impartiality.

This means a significant change in understanding the neutrality principle, usually confused with the impartiality principle. In order to approach the story or the narrative of each party it is necessary to overcome the supposed neutrality the code of ethics requires. Practitioners strive to achieve neutrality and get frustrated if they fail, as nobody ever told them that this is one of the realities they have to face when they intervene.

It is necessary to make progress in mediation professional interventions and to demystify neutrality, except for mediators trained in transformative or circular-narrative mediation. Narrative school mediators offer a gathering and a dialogue discourse that does not envisage the neutrality principle enshrined in the code of ethics. The neutrality principle is replaced by a neutral space made by the impartiality and equidistance principles that respond to the indications of the parties about loss of impartiality.

Neutrality has been mythicized without real questioning of its efficacy. However, some authors have indeed questioned it. All this was started by Cobb in her first publications where she openly questioned this principle (Rifkin, Millen & Cobb, 1991), and she continues to do so these days with a more integral view (2013, p. 70-75). Mayer followed this with a bigger impact when he questioned the fact that neutral third parties should resolve conflicts (Mayer, 2008, p. 156). Even if his reflections go beyond the scope of mediation, and in fact he invites us to overcome mediation, he has the courage to openly criticise it and provides alternatives that have been embraced by the alternative movement for managing disputes. Closer to us, Marinés Suares has bring forward her own concept of «deneutrality», (Suares, 2005, p. 36) which implies the involvement of the mediating person up to the point when the parties are able to negotiate again. Other authors, such us Merino, remind us that other critical voices question the neutrality concept per se (Merino Ortiz, 2013, p. 89).


The neutrality of the mediating person constitutes a guiding principle in the mediation process that has become a myth. Its comprehensive regulation and its unconditional acceptance presuppose an idealisation exercise of mediation that causes negative effects.

Demystifying neutrality is one of the distinct features of this intervention model. Neutrality should cease being understood as a mediation principle. The mediating intervention should not be considered as an aseptic intervention but rather as an empathetic attitude, and a more active role should be claimed to empower parties through more active collaboration in the process. A circular approach to interrelations or hypothesising from a narrative approach or even the ability to make circular questions can favour a circular perception of what happened between the parties.

The decision to eliminate neutrality as a principle implies advancing to extend the possibilities of our professional intervention. In conflict resolution ethical guidelines are needed for the evolution or transformation of the conflict’s narratives. These guidelines should go beyond the constrained limitations of this principle.


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