Working with bias in mediation

Conflict can be viewed as the clash of values, core beliefs or biases. In assisting those in conflict we must first gain an appreciation of the nature of the conflict involved, and facilitate an understanding of this by those affected by the conflict, before there can be any transformation to a better way of dealing with this to open up a pathway to a better future.


The steps could be seen as:


  1. Becoming aware of bias
  2. Understanding how this might be contributing to the conflict
  3. Assisting in overcoming this bias
  4. Facilitating an appropriate solution focus to conflict resolution




The advances in neuroscience tell us that we are exposed to an enormous amount of sensory signals over time, which are filtered and prioritized, and given meaning by the limbic part of our brains. Repetition creates neural pathways that become entrenched, and our reactions become unconscious, intuitive and what has been termed “fast thinking”. This leads to bias in perception such as selective perception, and an emotional response.


An emotional reaction can result in panic and fear, and a response from the reptilian part of the brain, with fight, flight or freeze,; or be directed to the frontal cortex and the activation of the more rational functions. The latter invokes cognitive bias.


Often in a time of conflict, a reaction is reflexive, applying unconscious neural patterns and networks to make inferences based on our biases, whether perceptive or cognitive.




Some bias relates to ourselves, including self-serving bias, ego-centric bias and group think bias. Some bias relates to others, including fundamental attribution error, stereotyping or the halo effect.


Others relate more to activities, such as decision-making, and can involve overconfidence, confirmation bias, escalation of commitments and loss aversion; or to the conflict itself, involving simplification of conflict, fixed pie perception, or a false dichotomy between competitive and co-operative options.




All those working with conflict can recall situations where the conflict has arisen as both sides have interpreted the facts differently, and have an inconsistent perception of reality. For example, one parent may be interpreting the situation as a need to act protectively of their child and therefore limit time for the child with the other parent; whereas the other parent may interpret this as designed to undermine their role as a parent and cut them put of the child’s life.


Both parents in this example have a different “bias blind spot” and can often assume that the other parent is strongly biased whereas they are relatively bias free! The stronger the disagreement, the stronger the bias that we attribute to the other party, the more likely that parent is to behave competitively, which fuels the ongoing conflict. Being stuck in the conflict makes the parents emotional, restricts their thinking, and impacts negatively on their ability to communicate effectively. This restricted thinking can result in entrenched positions and the focus on opposing views, the problems and not the solution.


So in this way, bias cannot only lead to the conflict, but result in an escalation of the conflict situation, perhaps even leading to intractable conflict.


Interventions by mediators


Mediators need to assist parties to break through the bias-conflict cycle by using four main interventions:


  • Overcoming perception biases;
  • Assisting with the appreciation and moderation of feelings;
  • Challenging cognitive biases;
  • Using co-operation and a solution focused problem-solving approach.


Through perceptive listening, parties can be encouraged to be more objective in how they perceive what is happening around them. They can be taken through the facts that lead to the conflict, and challenged by looking at alternate interpretations.


Summarising back to parties what they have presented, can sometimes allow for insight as to a more objective interpretation. Facilitating a party to really listen to the interpretation of others, can also allow for different explanations of background events, that form the basis of strongly held beliefs. The aim is to provide an opportunity to take a more unbiased view of the events that have lead to the conflict.


Strong emotion is often the foundation for a stuck position and the application of bias. My experience is that parties often have strong emotions themselves and attribute equally strong emotions to the other party. Identifying and acknowledging emotion can be the beginning of exploring these and moving to a position where these emotions might not be seen as so extreme. Skills such as positive reframing, and encouraging self-reflection, can assist to counter bias by fostering empathy and focusing on similarities rather than differences.


Cognitive bias can be challenged by exploring the different stories presented by all parties, and assisting them to move towards a common story upon which to base the management of the ongoing conflict. Skills required here would be summarizing and paraphrasing the other’s point of view, and using positive reframing to move from the negativity and blaming of past events, to the more positive and constructive future focus approach. Naming obvious biases can allow the parties to leave these in the past and choose a different version of their interaction for the future.


The most important aspect of this work for me, is not to look at the conflict as a dispute specific problem for the parties, but to regard this as an opportunity for them to learn conflict management skills for the future, that will enable them to work together co-operatively and either avoid serious conflict situations, or have the ability to deal with them in a more respectful and constructive manner.




By recognizing the important role that bias plays in the generation, maintenance and management of conflict, it is possible to develop skills and strategies to deal with conflict in a more positive and constructive manner.


I have read many articles on this topic that have triggered these thoughts, but I would like to acknowledge the work done by Francois Bogacz in the area of neuroscience, and a blog by Catherin Brys dated 3/02/2017 “What can mediators do to help parties overcome their biases?”


I am endeavouring to refine my skills in conflict management and mediation by incorporating these ideas into my work. If you too are interested in this aspect of practice and would like to share your ideas and experiences, please contact me at Creative family Law Solutions.

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