Why unconscious bias is so important to understand as a mediator

Why unconscious bias is so important to understand as a mediator and how to combat it

By Alice Holtom & Alex Christian

Unconscious bias is a pervasive issue in today's society, and it can have a profound impact on the way we interact with others, make decisions, and perceive the world and others around us. As a mediator, it's crucial to understand, acknowledge and address unconscious bias in order to facilitate fair, equitable, and effective negotiations between conflicting parties.

Our upbringing, personal experiences and social interactions through life make us who we are, and form the basis of our individual attitudes towards the world, our opinions, beliefs and behaviours. Some of those opinions beliefs and behaviours we are aware of, we might be a little embarrassed or ashamed of and some and proud of others. However some don’t even reach our consciousness. However they all affect the way we interact with the world and others.

Unconscious bias is the combination of all our views and opinions, some which may be inaccurate or irrational but all are gained across our history of work and personal life and are hidden from our conscious awareness. They can often negatively affect our dealings with certain people and general decision making in life.

We all have boxes and categories for reference. It could be the obvious such as skin colour, religion or gender, or more subtle such as an accent, or educational background or job title. Our brain is naturally hard wired to make snap decisions and assumptions and we can then display this in ways even we are unaware of. It is important to be aware of the fact that unconscious biases influence our decision making processes, even when they are in direct opposition to our verbalised beliefs.

It is a complex and sometimes emotive subject but below are some examples of unconscious bias:

The effective mediator needs to be aware of both their own and the participants unconscious biases because they impact on:

Our perception – both how we see people and perceive reality

Our attitude – how we react towards certain people

Our behaviours – how receptive or friendly we are towards certain people

Our attention – how much we actively listen to what certain people say

Out micro-affirmations – how much or how little we comfort certain people in certain situations and make positive comments about them

A mediator needs to be aware of their on possible unconscious biases, and also identify and challenge those of the participants, because those biases could affect the behaviour or the mediator and the mediation process but could also be impacting of the participants approach to the dispute and the other participant and the overall outcome of the mediation.

To effectively address unconscious biases as a mediator, it's important to first acknowledge their existence and understand how they can impact your work. This requires self-reflection and an openness to learning and growth. You may want to consider participating in diversity, equality, and inclusion training, or further training on unconscious bias as the topic is too large to address in one short article.

In addition to self-awareness, it's also important to implement specific strategies to counteract unconscious biases in your mediations. For example, you may want to consider the following:

Be aware of unconscious bias!

In conclusion, unconscious bias is a complex and pervasive issue that can impact on mediations in many ways. However, by acknowledging its existence, practising self-awareness, and implementing specific strategies to counteract its impact, mediators can work towards creating a more equitable and effective negotiation process for all parties involved.