When Mediation meets Diplomacy

Let’s start at the beginning of any mediation. How to address the parties?

I took part in an international mediation competition where an issue of ‘cultural sensitivity’ quickly came to the fore.
The mediator introduced himself/herself to the parties to the dispute, who came from different parts of the world and so might well have very different instincts about deference to seniority/authority/age/gender and so on.

In the UK/US mediation tradition it would be usual to suggest that everyone use first-name terms during a mediation, to encourage relaxed informality and so (perhaps) promote an atmosphere more conducive to compromise.

The point was made that that sort of thing might not be appropriate in a culturally ‘diverse’ mediation. One party might feel itself at a psychological disadvantage if asked to use first-name terms: that party might agree, not wishing to appear ‘stuffy’, but nonetheless then feel uncomfortable using first-name terms when addressing eg older or seemingly more senior people.

The supposedly fair solution proposed was that the mediator let the two sides choose for themselves – if one party wanted to use first-name terms but the other not, fine.

I don’t like this. The party opting to use more formal styles of address is going to have a problem when it sees the other party and mediator talking to each other using informal first-name language. The mediator’s neutrality is implicitly eroded, or at least that could be the impression.

What to do? Play it safe. The mediator should use a more formal level of address for both parties, at least to get things moving. That way no-one is offended or risks being offended. All feel equal and at ease. In short, good diplomacy, good manners, good practice.

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