How to Manage Power Imbalances Between Parties
By Ashleigh Barry
A power imbalance can exacerbate the emotions of the parties involved in a conflict but power imbalances become problematic when it affects a party and their self-determination.
Self-determination is the idea of being in control of your own life. In order to be part of a mediation self-determination is the most important quality that the parties must possess because a mediation is meant to allow parties to be able to speak their minds and come to a solution of their free will without outside influence.
If power imbalances threaten the self determination of one party over the other then the power imbalance must be neutralized in order to continue with mediation. As a mediator listening to the party that is imbalanced is the best thing you can do. If party A is verbally bullying party B as a mediator you can pose a question to party B to communicate their point and it will make party A pause momentarily so that party B can answer, then if the bullying continues you can tell party A that right now I want to hear an answer to the question I asked. This allows for the disadvantaged party B to regain some self determination because it doesn’t matter if the two sides hear each other in this moment what matters is that party B has enough time to think through their options without outside influence. By focusing on party B you as a mediator are telling them that their opinions are important despite the actions of party A which are meant to discredit and take focus away from party B. Time management is an extremely important factor in this scenario because if too much time is spent with party B party A could start to believe that you as the mediator are favoring the other party. If this happens once party B has answered the question you could ask party A a question about their interpretation of the same question or summarize party A’s position.
If the power imbalance comes from a lack of knowledge about an aspect of the mediation such as financial records then as a mediator I would recommend that the deprived party meet with someone they trust to give them advice and support in order for them to become more knowledgeable about financial records or other matters before the next meeting.
A caucus can be a great way to build someone’s self determination, you have the power to help each party create an agenda of things that they want to cover and then during the mediation you can direct their focus to those items. A caucus is also a place where you can roleplay situations and help the parties see potential outcomes based on how they respond in different manners.
Only if the power imbalance is too great with no hope of reconciling the gap between the parties should you opt out of the mediation, but as a mediator you must work towards closing that gap to the best of your abilities first.
Rick Voyles, Managing an Imbalance of Power, October 2004 http://www.mediate.com/articles/voylesR3.cfm