Physician Heal Thyself: The Lack of Diversity in ADR

The purpose of this article is to enlighten readers about the lack of inclusion in alternative dispute resolution (ADR), an industry where we are trained to look at issues from all angles.

Diversity and inclusion is a hot topic, but we’ve diluted the message of important initiatives like D&I by using it so many times (without implementing meaningful change) that it has gone stale. I believe the confusion arises from a disconnect of understanding from different perspectives, from fear and unconscious bias. Diversity is defined as “distinct in kind; unlike; having variety in form.” The broad definition of diversity includes not only diversity of race, gender, and age, but diversity in thought, skill sets, sexual orientation, mental health, disability, and personal/professional culture. Culture is defined as “the common beliefs and customs of a particular group.” Diverse cultures can exist even in the same family. The acknowledgment and acceptance of those differences is how we effectively communicate and negotiate having some of our interests met in navigating relationships.

We all suffer from unconscious bias. In addition to the possibility of being on the wrong end of bias, imagine existing without privilege. People of color live on the wrong end of bias in more areas than we care to recount. It has been inescapable. Microaggressions are ignored or endured for years in some form or another. We’re exhausted. In the wake of COVID-19 and civil unrest across the country and the world, we are witnessing a pandemic inside of the pandemic. The isolation that is necessary to stay safe from coronavirus has had an effect on everyone in different ways. Black communities are noted as having the highest number of cases, for a variety of reasons: less access to health care, underlying medical conditions, poverty, and the performance of essential work. The disadvantages and injustices in Black communities are undeniably higher than in other communities. Opportunities exist for some, but not for all. We have barely begun to see the conflicts that will arise from this period in time.

People ask how we can do better. How?… We are dispute resolvers! We get paid as skilled listeners and analyzers, and we convey tough messages every day. Any complicated conversation around the lack of diversity in ADR or in any industry just became even more complicated. We know that transparency is key in ADR for solidifying trust, so that we, the compromise facilitators, can better guide negotiations and communicate the parties’ interests. The ability to relay the right information, at the right time, and in the right way can make or break negotiations. So, we must always tell the truth, or we sacrifice the sanctity of self-determination. We manage other people’s ugly truths all the time. It is uncomfortable, but that truth, no matter how ugly or painful, is the basis for healing and resolution. We convince people of that in common practice. Our own challenges with having the tough talks are no different than the conversations we help others navigate every single day.

The ADR profession cannot fully thrive until communications around D&I are honestly conducted. The inclusion of the contributions of diverse professionals in ways that are meaningful will change the face of ADR from the standpoint of culture and subject matter expertise. Are we intentionally making strides that will move us forward in the battle for the contributions of diverse groups to be seen, heard, and valued in the ADR space? Now is the time to bring equitable solutions to a system that has leaned to one side for far too long. It’s our responsibility as dispute resolvers. The covers are off. Are we ready to openly address the systemic societal ills? Love is the anti-virus. Start with you.

Here is a suggested method to have the tough talks: HEAL

  • Have the first tough conversation. Go ahead, the next one will be a little easier.
  • Encourage honesty and openness. Be quiet and listen, then talk.
  • Acknowledge it is uncomfortable and try to understand why.
  • Let there be light. Begin to understand another’s experience. Be an ally.

Diversity is different ways of presenting a dish. Inclusion is adding the right variety of ingredients to enhance the flavor.

People of color no longer emphasize the concept of “equality,” because our right to equality is embedded in the U.S. Constitution. Equity is what we demand. We need our allies to step up and speak up. If you’re silent… we hear you.

About the Author

Rebekah Ratliff is president of Capital City Mediations, LLC, a mediation, arbitration, and case consulting firm, and is the co-chair of the ABA Dispute Resolution Section Diversity Committee. Contact her at

Send this to a friend