Sarah Cobb

Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

Interviewed by
Julian Portilla

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This rough transcript
provides a text alternative to audio.
We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with

A: There are a lot of different, nasty pitfalls about the notion of neutrality. One of them is
that people are not going to bring their own attitudes and values to bear on the mediation
process. At
the very extreme it's kind of like trying to be a blank slate and not really be there. You
think of people who wouldn't have attitudes or values as like chairs or something. They
inanimate objects because that is what makes us human beings. I think another terrible pitfall
about it is that it's not just that we are supposed to be blank slates but that we are not
supposed to
be advocates for folks for either side. I think that is a terrible mistake. People who are suffering
and having bad conflicts with others; they need advocates. They need all the help they can get.
job, as I see it, as a facilitator and a mediator, is to be there for them. I really want to be there for
them and that means being with them, being for them, and helping them show up as totally,
legitimate and appropriate people.

Usually when I am in a mediation or facilitation conflict process, there is always somebody
who looks like they are pretty much out to lunch. They are in the worst position, they can't
escape the act they've done and they are really hanging out there at risk. There is always
one party or more that is more vulnerable to claims of moral and inappropriateness than others.
are always the ones I feel sorry for. I always take special care of them. Part of the problem of
neutrality is the assumption that the third-party doesn't have attitudes and values. The other
assumption is that in the session the third party is not supposed to be the advocate of folks. I
disagree with that. I think the people are trapped in narratives that they did not make and they
control. It takes somebody who can be in the narrative with them to open the narrative, to
illuminate its sparkling wonder, to release it from its hegemonic force, and to do all of that in a
way that
doesn't de-legitimize people.

I think that back in 1990 when Jan and I were looking into this concept, it was real clear that
some of the family therapists had a great idea that if you just take this whole notion of neutrality,
it to bed, tuck it in, give it its pacifier so it doesn't wake up and instead call it
multi-partiality. That's what we are doing. We are going in there and being multi-partial to
folks. People need
different kinds of help. I had to be partial differently. In session there are sometimes people that
I can touch. I can tap somebody on the knee. I can put my hand on somebody's back. I can
reach over and pull the hair out of a child's eyes. There are other people that I can't
touch. So I'm going to be different with different folks in the session. Not only how I am
physically but also in what kind of story I'd launch with them and how I might deal with
them. For some people I don't need a private setting. I am working with a group and I have
person in particular who is very vulnerable and I'll need a private session with them. The
whole notion of symmetry is also built into the notion of neutrality. I don't buy
that either. Both in my personal life and in my professional life I don't think everything has
to be equal because it's never going to be anyway. Folks are different and they need
things. My job is to try to help everybody be legitimate. If I can do that the rest will follow. Good
stuff will follow.

Q: So your job is to help make everyone legitimate. I think someone who just went through
their 40 hours of mediation training would ask you what is your interest in this? If you're
neutral then what are you? What does multi-partial mean? What is your goal when you go in

A: My goal was the evolution of narrative such that they are different than they were when
they came in. And they are less pancaked and everybody is legitimized. My goal is not
My goal is not fixing anything, not helping people reach consensus. However, I do focus on the
evolution of the narratives and the formulation of summaries. These then provide the platform
documenting the legitimacy of all the folks involved and people figure out what they are going
to do.