Power Balancing in Mediation

Power balancing in mediation basically refers to the goal and the practice of a mediator

a)    determining that there is a significant power differential between the parties

b)    feeling responsible to “even the table”, and

c)     intervening in ways that bolster or offer greater support to the “weaker” or “more disadvantaged” party

 

NOT power balancing in Transformative Mediation is based on foundational principles and premises for the practice of this model and the underlying beliefs about conflict:

a)    every participant in mediation has the inherent capacity for both self-determined choice and responsiveness to others

b)    every participant knows best how to work through conflict, including what options to consider and what choices to make

c)     each participant is temporarily weakened by the conflict, regardless of the power differentials between the parties

d)    it is dis-empowering to participants for the mediator to make assumptions or to supplant party-choice-making, including choices to comment upon or raise issues, directly or indirectly, related to perceived power imbalances

 

The theoretical underpinnings of power balancing in mediation, are informed by the idea that the parties must be able to negotiate and work through their conflict in a way that is basically “fair”, with neither party being at a severe disadvantage in relation to the other. But as many mediation practitioners and scholars have noted*, power imbalances exist in just about every relationship, if not every interaction. Life is often unfair, and so are the dynamics, resources, and positions of most disputants involved in mediation. So why do mediators believe they will be able to shift power imbalances during the course of one or even several mediation sessions?

 

How might the mediator be able to change the power dynamics between a divorcing couple who’ve been married for 15 years? While the “bread winner” may have more power in relationship to a partner who has never earned money, this same party may be at a disadvantage when negotiating for joint custody of their children. Could a white manager experience himself as less advantaged, and in a relatively weaker position than his Latino subordinate, in the mediation of a race-based discrimination complaint? How many times do mediators base their interpretation of the balance of power between parties on macro-societal power differentials and systemic inequities, which may have very little to do with how to best support both participants in having a more constructive interaction, in order to work out their conflict?