Broadening the Definition of Diversity for Mediation and other purposes...

When I consider mediation, a big part of what we mediate are human differences and the complex rank and privilege dynamics associated with those differences.  

Human diversity includes gender, sexual orientation, marital status, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, political view/party, age, mental/physical ability, as well as an infinite array of perspectives, styles, and states of mind. It’s a lot!

One of the things that helps us work with a wide array of relationship problems and conflicts is a good enough definition or model of diversity. Particularly because of the rank dynamics that go along with our differences and how these power, centrality, privilege, and marginalization experiences influence relationships and conflict, we need a model or map to work with what shows up in front of us and inside of us. More narrow models of diversity can amount to bias. For example, a model that assigns people for various reasons into limiting categories, by suggesting that such and such characteristics necessary amount to privilege or the lack of it.

There are tendencies, depending on the context, that our various human factors will give one greater or lesser centrality, privilege, access to resources, healthcare options, legal rights, etc., and with conflict settings in mind, the privileges of speaking with ease, believing in oneself, having confidence, and representing oneself well. These tendencies are why there have been vital movements for greater equity and civil rights. And in conflicts these factors can play an important part, for example, in one party's ability to represent herself or himself in more or less powerful ways than the other party. Or, when the mediator favors or opposes, for various reasons, one party or the other for too long.

A model of diversity that considers how social factors may tend to determine one's relative privilege is important but if it's inflexible it won't work for very long. What seems needed is the view that there are social factors and tendencies to be alert to and that not every person who has such and such makeup is necessarily privileged or marginal, but might be, or might be momentarily.

If social rank is composed of the above factors of gender, race, age, etc., what can be added to this diversity model are psychological, spiritual, and “democratic” rank.

Psychological rank is personal power, knowing oneself, and being able to work with one’s stresses and problems. Spiritual rank is often experienced as a connection to something greater, and like psychological rank may be independent of social status and may even be cultivated because of adversity.  “Democratic” rank can be seen as an “opposite” social rank; it’s a rank that gives a marginalized person the sense that justice is behind her or him.

The above kinds of rank are important in a broader definition of diversity because these different forms of rank defy the limits of social rank and help make the actual experience of power and centrality in relationship and conflict situations fluid. These other forms of rank arguably make for a more equitable world than what might be if there were only social rank.

Again, one important question is how ably can a person represent herself, put up a fair enough fight? And how might these various parts of our human diversity influence a conflict? Does chronic marginalization or privilege enter into the formula?

When we as mediators see sexism, homophobia, racism, ageism, etc., in a mediation, what do we do?  Not infrequently, people only partially register social marginalization. We may be shocked by it, not know how or whether to respond, or may even tacitly condone it. Starting with having awareness that what we see might be an expression of bias is helpful. Naming what we see can create more safety even while bringing awareness to such moments may add tension in the short term.

What do we do when we see power dynamics unfold that may stem from our human diversity? We might name it and inquire. “Looks like there may be a power issue here. Is that what you experience?” Or, “It looks like there is a power dynamic here that is making the conflict escalate. Shall we explore that for a bit?”

What do we do when we start to side with a more vulnerable or powerful party? Or when we side against a seemingly marginal or central party? Siding is a natural human tendency. As mediators, we might consider siding a clue that helps us understand the dynamics in front of us as well as our own biases. For example, if we find ourselves siding with one party, we might find that party to be temporarily less powerful. If we are simultaneously less sympathetic towards the more powerful party, we might need to inquire more into this side if we're not also seeing the humanity in the more powerful one.

Diversity is of course a massive topic. It’s also one that seems to grow the moment we have begun to define it. What is your definition of diversity? How does your definition help your mediation work? How might you need to broaden your model?