‘Not Showing, Not Telling’: Confidentiality and Vulnerability in Mediation

Dr Mike Talbot Articles, Dr Mike Talbot

Are there stories about you and your life that you would tell only to certain people: events and experiences that you would only relate to a few individuals, maybe just one or two, or maybe no-one at all?

But, really, what should it matter if I told you today that I stole some sweets when I was eight: showing off to friends? Who would care that I used to have an overwhelming crush on a particular schoolteacher, and that I sent her a secret note when I turned sixteen, hoping she might meet me out of school? And what about when I…..OK, that’s enough!

Perhaps we worry that there will be negative consequences for us when we admit our errors and misdemeanours: we fear that we may somehow have to pay them back for it. But, equally well, do we simply fear what others might think of us, that they might lower their opinion of us if they found out about our vulnerabilities, failings, and mistakes?

As mediators, we often tell people that we want them to be ‘….open and honest with each other’, and that we are providing this thing we call confidentiality to enable this to happen. But what are we really expecting of people in mediation, and how does our assurance of confidentiality help that expectation to be met?

And before I go on, I would just say that I am talking here about the real mediation of interpersonal disputes within a facilitative/transformative model. If you’re a ‘Civil Mediator’ of the variety who is really running evaluative settlement conferences, with a smattering of whispered legal opinion, a sprinkle of subject knowledge and ‘If I were you…’ comment, then this probably won’t be for you.

So, what is this ‘…open and honest’ thing in mediation? Well, at a psychological level, being open and honest with another person means letting yourself be truly seen: putting on display your mistakes, failings, and inadequacies; becoming vulnerable. And this is hard. As a species, we can tend to try and cover up our mistakes, to mask our failings with our successes, and to parade our skills as a way to conceal our inadequacies. Why? Because we don’t want to be seen as defective, weak, or a ‘loser’.

There is a lot more to say about these ideas, mostly relating to the notion of shame, sometimes referred to as the ‘Master Emotion’: an uncomfortable, barely tolerable feeling of not being good enough, being fundamentally flawed or bad. I would refer interested readers to some of Brené Brown’s TED Talks on this topic, but for now let’s say that shame, and the avoidance of shame, is something that I (and many other psychotherapists) believe motivates a lot of our behaviour, and which especially motivates our behaviour when we are embroiled in interpersonal conflict.

When we avoid shame we choose behaviours that conceal our vulnerability: we keep others at a relational distance while minimising our own faults and failings, defending against the real or perceived threat that will be seen as being wrong, being to blame, to have failed, or ultimately, to be bad. In essence, we do everything we can to avoid relating to the other person. And within a facilitative/transformative mediation model such as my own relational model, Re:Talk, setting the conditions for the disputing parties to start to properly relate to each other means beginning to build dialogue, which in turn means beginning to resolve their conflict.

And in this regard, confidentiality is one such condition. If a mediation participant knows that when they speak to me not only will I hear them without judgement, but that I will keep what they tell me completely private, then they will be far more inclined to open up. Further than that, if I can genuinely empathise with them, letting them know, again without any judgement, that I can see them for who they are, failings, mistakes, weaknesses, and all, then they may let themselves be vulnerable with me: letting me in a little, however briefly.

Within a conventional running order for interpersonal mediation, we would see the parties separately at first, and then bring them together for a joint session of around half a day. So, what I need to do as mediator is to use confidentiality to equally create the conditions in the initial, separate sessions for each party to feel inclined to relate to me in this way: allowing their vulnerability, hiding less, and being more available for true dialogue.

Then, when we come together for the joint session they can start to dialogue with each other: often tight-lipped at first, then perhaps more angrily, and probably with their conversation still tinged with I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong, blame tennis, very different stories about the conflict events, and to an extent each wanting the mediator to take their side. As mediator, I can continue the earlier work of supporting them equally to be a little more vulnerable and to allow themselves to be seen more fully, only this time they are not dialoguing with me but with each other.

Of course, I keep entirely private what I have heard in the individual sessions, and they can trust that. Now, though, I and each of the parties know that it is entirely possible that they can allow themselves to come out of their shells a little: to be truly seen. With a lot of impartial support for them both, with empathic responding, sometimes re-framing, and by mutualising the experience for the two of them, they can now become more vulnerable. And as they gradually cease seeing their vulnerability as weakness, they can start to be more at ease with their own mistakes and failings: seeing the resolution of their conflict as a collaborative endeavour, and not one that needs to involve a winner and a loser, someone who was right and someone who was wrong.

So, for me, this is the psychological process that bridges the gap between a mediator’s assurance of confidentiality and the parties’ inclination to be ‘Open and Honest’ with each other. Just giving such an assurance isn’t enough, in my opinion, and there is a need for us to understand, at the relational level, what the mediator does with that, how the assurance might lessen parties’ perfectly understandable need to defend against shame, and for them to become even a little more vulnerable. And only when both parties’ vulnerability is visible, each to the other, can they let one another in, begin to build dialogue, and approach a resolution to their conflict.

Read Part 1 of this series, looking at Confidentiality in mediation, here.