Mediation Techniques for Managing Bias

By Chuck Doran and Megan Winkeler

In Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, the first step to improved negotiations is to separate people from the problem. But what if a person is your problem? Managing bias like this can be a daunting task without a clear strategy or direction. Utilizing the following mediation techniques, you can improve your ability to manage bias in your mediations and negotiations.

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Know Your Biases

Take a moment and think about the things you admire in people. Maybe you enjoy being around people who are loyal and responsible, or maybe you admire people who can take a joke or treat others with respect.

Now, think about the traits you don’t like in people. What gets on your nerves? Are you particularly annoyed by rude people, or is arrogance your pet peeve? You might not be too bothered by people who shout, but perhaps you can’t stand people who whine a lot.

Knowing the traits you like and dislike in others is the first step to managing biases. Everyone has biases, and according to ample research, we are not good at removing them completely from our thought processes. However, being aware of what makes us tick allows us to prepare for moments when we are feeling biased.

For an objective look at your implicit biases, you can take this quiz developed by Project Implicit, a nonprofit organization founded by scientists from University of Washington, University of Virginia, and Harvard University.

Step Back and Refocus

In Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, he explains the difference between System 1 and System 2 thinking and how it impacts our decision making. System 1 thinking is fast and automatic. It’s the knee-jerk response that tells you to run for the door when someone yells “Fire!” and allows you to immediately complete the phrase “peanut butter and-”. It’s also the system of reactive thinking that triggers stereotypes and biases.

System 2 thinking, on the other hand, is slow and analytical. It’s the deliberative thought process you use to decide which mortgage option will save your family money over the long term. System 2 thinking requires time and energy, and we improve our use of it through regular practice. Using System 2 thinking, you can work on managing biases and the impact they have on your mediations and negotiations.

As mediators, we use regular breaks during the mediation for some System 2 thinking. Not only are breaks a great way to analyze new information and plan an effective process, but mediators can also use that time to confront any biases they felt during the mediation. Talking with a mentor, colleague, or co-mediator is especially helpful when recognizing any biased behaviors that could impact the mediation. You can still use this time as a solo mediator to think about how you’re feeling.

Doing this, you can reorient yourself to provide a neutral process. If you feel irked by someone who yells every statement, for instance, step aside and strategize ways to continue listening despite their lack of volume control. Doing this allows you to shift your attention from the person to the issue at hand. In mediation, it focuses you on your common goal with the parties – helping them work towards resolution.

Take a Walk in Their Shoes

While stepping aside and generating strategies can be helpful for managing bias in mediation, you may need more structured exercises to be effective. In What Works: Gender Equality by Design, Harvard economist Iris Bohnet collects vast research that suggests removing bias from our thinking process is an improbable goal.

However, one method that was effective in helping research subjects manage bias involves taking a metaphorical walk in someone else’s shoes. By imagining yourself in someone else’s situation, you develop empathy towards them. For instance, it’s easy to be angry at a driver who cuts you off when changing lanes, but you can mitigate that anger by thinking about a time you accidentally cut someone off when changing lanes.

As mediators, we can imagine ourselves in a party’s situation to manage bias. For instance, if a party in a commercial business partnership case is rude and arrogant, you can think about how you might feel and act if your contributions to the business or the value of your equity stake were being questioned. In that case, you might not be your best self. A party who denies facts, even when confronted with evidence, may feel embarrassed or scared of the consequences if they own up to lying. By empathizing with someone, we can more effectively focus on the issue at hand rather than our biases.

Utilize Interactive Listening Skills

You are aware that you are feeling biased, and you’ve stepped aside and utilized your System 2 thinking to empathize with the party and take a walk in their shoes. But you’re still feeling biased. In this moment, keep in mind an insightful quote from a colleague: “Even jerks have interests.”

Mediators do not decide which party is deserving of a judgment or which one is in the right. Rather, we focus on identifying parties’ interests, and utilizing those interests, we help them generate a variety of options that could help them reach resolution. When mediators start to feel biased, they can rely on interactive listening skills to ensure they are providing a fair, neutral process.

Ask open-ended, judgment-free questions that encourage the party to guide the conversation and help you to learn more about what they really want and need from the mediation. Listen carefully for interests as they talk, jotting any down as you hear them. Finally, summarize what the party told you to confirm understanding, specifically noting any interests that you heard.

This process of interactive listening not only allows you to manage bias, but it also shows the party that you want to help them work towards a beneficial resolution. Parties who feel heard often calm their tone and behavior and become more collaborative. Even if you feel biased throughout the entire mediation process, both parties will still feel that it was a fair, neutral process if you focus on interests.

Biases are inevitable – as a mediator and as a negotiator. Managing bias becomes simpler, however, if you are prepared. Utilizing these techniques, create specific strategies that you can use in your future mediations and negotiations, and you will see an impact on your effectiveness.

To learn more about the benefits of building your mediation skills, contact Chuck Doran at cdoran@mwi.org or 617-895-4026.

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