Mediator Observations & the Importance of Self-Determination

Driving back from the lake last week, my partner and I were stopped at a light when we observed 2 boys walking down the street who looked about 12 or 13 years old. The boys appeared to be walking away from the lake where they had presumably been playing basketball, the ball nestled beneath one boy's arm. We noticed how they had their arms around each other, one over the shoulder, the other around the waist very much like two pals who had just enjoyed each other's company a great deal and weren't afraid to show it. There was nothing sexual about it; just two buddies, happy, walking home together on a nice night.

As they crossed to the other side of the street, 2 girls about the same age as the boys approached the corner. All of them -- the 2 boys, the 2 girls -- suddenly seemed to notice one another.

Very quickly, the boy with his arm around the other's shoulder shifted his grasp, putting his friend in a headlock. They wrestled. As the boys and girls finally crossed paths, the boys abruptly let go of one another, no contact between them, as they grinned at the passing girls.

There was both beauty and sadness in this moment for me. It was wonderful to see the boys' innocent appreciation of one another. Their posturing for the girls had a certain level of playfulness and humor to it. The sadness was in the boys' obvious need to change the ways in which they expressed themselves relative to who could observe them. It's doubtful the boys could have known we were watching them, but even if they had, most likely they would not have changed their behavior for us. Seeing female peers -- and likely male peers would have invoked the same reaction -- elicited the response of playful aggression between the boys followed by a quick distancing.

For me, this highlighted the impact external forces and observers can have on relationships and the natural expression of feelings. External forces such as the media, community, the culture in which we're raised, religion, employment, class, politics, etc can all impact our intimate relationships and how we express ourselves within those relationships. Yet it is an outside individuals ability to influence a relationship that I find fascinating in the context of mediation.

In mediation, I often give parties an opportunity to vent(if it's non-abusive and within reason) to allow myself time to observe the dynamics that exist between them. Yet I wonder to what extent I am getting a true picture of their relationship. Regardless of my neutrality, I'm not a clean slate. I bring a particular presence to mediation that can't but influence and alter client interactions. That's the point of mediation, after all, that with some skill, patience, and perhaps luck I will alter some of the negative interactions and assist the clients in reaching positive outcomes.

Yet it seems important to remember that at the end of the day I'm merely an observer of a particular relationship at a particular place and time. Every relationship is in a constant state of flux and as a mediator I can never truly grasp one of which I am not a part. My presence can create a new relationship that includes myself and the individuals in conflict but I will forever remain on the outside when it comes to their particular nuances. Given that, it only further emphasizes the importance of self-determination in mediation. The parties, not the mediator, have all the information in which to make the best decisions.

Those two boys alone know what they mean to one another.

By Laura L. Noah
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