I Gotta Get to the Gym!


Waaaay back when I was a “DisRes” student one of the fundamental tenets drilled into me was the need to be a neutral. The intellectual practice of showing up free of my biases was drilled-in by acquainting me with the Ladder of Inference and the Harvard Implicit Association Test. I was glad to see documentation of biases I had faced personally and, no doubt, perpetuated myself. As a student I was taught these skills in a brief time and I could check the box saying “There, I’ve done it!  I am fully aware of my biases and I got ‘em under control. Now, on to Thomas-Killman.” I was expected to continue the process of building my neutrality muscles as I was supervised in my practice mediation sessions and class discussions. This was sort of like weight room training that athletes conduct as an integral part of their growth and development from high school all the way through to paid professionals.  

Fast forward fifteen years (Damn!  Has it been that long?) and I find myself being called in to mediate a number of conflicts or facilitate conversations where race may be an issue. (BTW. I identify as Black/African-American). I also am pleased to be involved with a number of dispute resolution colleagues who are well known and, intellectually, far more accomplished than I. As these colleagues and I get into discussions regarding various conflict content, we examine various approaches to getting key issues on the table or dilemmas we may have faced that vexed us, asking each other “How could I have addressed this issue differently to get a better solution?” or “Here’s a nugget I used to get this one done.”  

I find that Content is King in our collegial discussions, and yet the process of remaining neutral never gets discussed. It is rare that I hear someone state that they passed on a case because of their own bias or brought in someone to mitigate some of their personal biases. Seldom, if ever, does anyone say “Maybe you should have passed on this case.”

I think we, as professionals, have gotten “soft” about questioning or sustaining our neutrality. I think it is time for us to get back to the gym. So, as part of getting myself back in shape, I’ve developed a set of questions I now ask myself before each mediation or facilitation. Sort of my pre-event workout to stay in great neutral shape (If that’s even a phrase).  

I don’t consider my set of questions to be doctrine, but rather a set of tools that can be used to prompt a meaningful self-inquiry by anyone interested is doing so. That being said…..I wish you well and hope to “see you in the gym!”  


Matt Thompson