Everyone welcome: Cultural sensitivity in mediation 

Cultural sensitivity is a prerequisite for mediators working in a diverse metropolis like Toronto, which has long claimed the title of the world’s most multicultural city.

There is plenty of evidence to back up that bold assertion. According to the 2016 Census, around 51 per cent of Torontonians were born outside the country, and a similar proportion in the Greater Toronto Census area identified as a member of a visible minority group, according to Statistics Canada.

That kind of diversity poses a challenge for mediators, since many of the couples they see will come from a different background than their own — assuming the parties themselves share roots in the same religious or cultural community. 

Mediator, educate thyself

To have any chance of reaching a successful settlement, the mediator must create an environment in which the parties feel comfortable expressing themselves freely, without worrying about whether their neutral will be culturally competent to handle their dispute.

Part of my job as a mediator is to educate myself about how my clients’ backgrounds may have affected their attitudes toward family, marriage, divorce and communication styles. That way, we can work together more effectively towards a resolution that works for everyone. 

At the same time, it’s important that mediators do not stray into the realm of stereotyping. Most religious and geographically based identities break down into much smaller groups. Even then, it would be a mistake to believe that each subculture is completely homogenous or that every member of the community will react in the same way when it comes to a family law dispute. My aim is to respect each of my clients as a unique member of their particular cultural group.

How cultural differences show up

Cultural differences can show up in all kinds of different and surprising ways during mediation. Certain hand gestures or body movements — including bowing — that are considered a sign of respect in some cultures may be offensive in others. 

Without proper care and attention to the backgrounds of the parties, the delicate relationship between the mediator and the parties can be undermined by small misunderstandings before we have even touched on the family law issues at the core of their matter. 

Couples in control of the process

Mediating for people from diverse backgrounds presents an opportunity for mediators to confront and address personal biases. Mediators can gain deeper insights and provide more effective support by considering whether behaviours such as frequent interruptions, avoidance of direct eye contact, or emotional expressions are influenced by cultural styles rather than the mediation process.

If cultural issues are identified as barriers to success during mediation, we can adapt the process accordingly. For instance, if one party has trouble opening up about their feelings in joint sessions, we can rely more on individual caucusing to effectively address and overcome these barriers.

This is where the inherent flexibility of mediation as a method of dispute resolution comes into its own. Because the couples involved control the process, they can customize the design of their own sessions — with the guidance of their mediator — in such a way that cultural concerns are addressed. 

In my practice, I know that my learning about different approaches to family, marriage and divorce has helped create opportunities for settlement that may have otherwise been missed. For that reason and many others, I intend to ensure that my journey towards cultural sensitivity will last for as long as my career as a mediator.

If you are looking for a family mediator who can design a culturally sensitive mediation process, schedule a consultation with me.

Darlene Rites

Darlene Rites