The A-Z of Mediation: Confidentiality

Posted on: February 13th, 2023

As mediators, we often talk about the ‘three pillars’ that make mediation so unique and so successful in resolving interpersonal disputes. Alongside ‘Voluntariness’ and ‘Impartiality’, one of these pillars is ‘CONFIDENTIALITY’, the topic of this week’s blog.

What is confidentiality in mediation?

Confidentiality is the ‘state of keeping or being kept secret or private’ and, when applied to mediation, is critical to a successful resolution. The parties must be assured that they can take part in open and honest dialogue, without fear of disclosure or reprisal.

You might have heard us talk about ‘open and honest dialogue’ quite a lot – either in our articles or in our free webinars – but what does it actually mean?

On a psychological level, it means letting yourself be truly seen: baring your mistakes and failings for all to see and, ultimately, becoming vulnerable. This is often hard for us as humans, as we don’t want to be seen as ‘weak’ or be the ones to be blamed for something that has gone wrong.

And when we try to avoid these feelings, we tend to keep others at a relational distance: reducing contact with them in order to minimise our own failings. When we ask people to open up in mediation, we start the process of them beginning to relate to one another. Hopefully, this will help them to build dialogue and ultimately resolve their conflict.

This is where confidentiality comes in. If a mediation participant knows that we will keep what they tell us completely private, they will be far more inclined to open up. And if we can genuinely empathise with them, they may begin to show their vulnerability to us too.

Confidentiality during your mediation meeting

So, on the day of the mediation, this all starts with the individual meetings. Here, we use confidentiality to create the conditions needed for each party to feel inclined to relate to us: allowing their vulnerability to show and becoming more available for true dialogue. The individual sessions are completely private and, with the help of some empathic responding and re-framing, the parties can start to come out of their shell.

This continues into the joint session, where we continue to support them in showing their vulnerability. The only difference here, of course, is that the dialogue is no longer with us as the mediator, but with each other as the people involved in the relationship.

Of course, there may be some situations where disclosure is necessary: where there is risk of parties coming to harm or where there is obviously improper conduct, for example. It is best to be transparent, and we take the time to agree with parties beforehand on what will and won’t be disclosed.

At the end of the day, just giving an assurance of confidentiality isn’t always enough. There must be an understanding from us on a relational level about what the mediator does with it, and how it is needed for parties to begin showing their vulnerability. Only when this happens can parties begin to let one another in and approach a resolution to their conflict together.

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