Phase Three – The Meeting
Phase Three of the community mediation process examines the “mediation table” essentials. We have laid the groundwork in Phase One and Phase Two – Planning and Preparation. Those who have, or who are, involved in community dispute resolution will testify that the heavy lifting involved in community mediation really begins with these stages. Once fully planned and all interests prepared, we are ready for the community mediation meeting. I always remind myself that community dispute resolution is a little like learning the piano – success depends on commitment, constant practice, and the desire to improve. As mediation moves to the meeting process, this message deserves repeating.
The Community Mediator
The success – or failure – of the community mediation process depends to a significant degree on the skills and attributes of the mediator. Mediators tend to employ one of three styles of mediation: facilitative, evaluative or transformative. For groups that are new to mediation or dispute resolution, the evaluative mediator style plays a more active role in assisting the group in process and outcome. The facilitative mediator works best with parties who have a firm understanding of issues and alternatives and are best served by bargaining. Finally, the transformative style of mediation and mediator is best suited in mediations with power imbalances. The transformative mediator will identify and address power imbalances and communication roadblocks to keep proceedings fair and productive. Ultimately, leadership and disputing parties should decide whether they prefer neutrals who are primarily facilitative, evaluative, or transformative. (Craver, 2015).
Regardless of mediation type and mediator style, all effective mediators will demonstrate core skills. Respected mediation academic, Bernard Mayer in his important text, Beyond Neutrality (2004), delves into the nuances of mediation specialist skills and styles necessary for issue and group situations. While each mediator may embrace a specific style of mediation, Mayer identifies common skills the successful mediator must possess – regardless of the mediation style. When reviewing these attributes, you would not be wrong in believing the optimal mediator must possess the wisdom of Buddha and patience of Job. These attributes deserve iteration:
Understanding the dynamics of conflict, including the emotional, attitudinal, and behavioral dimensions, structural and personal aspect of conflict and the interplay between power rights and interests.
Understanding the conflict engagement process
Ability to discern the different level of needs of the major disputants and the alternatives available for them to meet those needs
Good communication skills
Ability to look at both the integrative and distributive dimensions of conflict
Awareness of cultural and gender dynamics
Understanding of or ability to grasp the substantive, procedural and psychological issues quickly (our emphasis).
Ability to take both a long-term and immediate view of the conflict.Note. Reprinted from Beyond neutrality: Confronting the crisis in conflict resolution. Bernard S. Mayer (2004). New York: Wiley.
Finally, group approval of the selected mediator is critical. No community mediation should begin the process without group approval of the mediator. He or she will be the “conductor” and must be accepted and respected by the members of the group. This isn’t easy. The mediator must absolutely be neutral in appearance, core beliefs, and associations. The mediator must also be skilled in the very unique exercise of group mediation and negotiation. He or she must be able to quickly and accurately diagnose situations and solve problems to make the process work. Sounds almost impossible, but it’s not. Skilled community mediators have innate qualities of justice as well as learned skills. Where do you find your ultimate mediator? I suggest beginning with a respected national mediation organization or university known for advanced studies and research in negotiated dispute resolution.
Group Facilitation Essentials
The community mediation process is only able to move forward as long as members are willing to participate in the process. This means all hands on deck. Part of special interest group commitment is the honest promise to fully participate in the community process. In addition, initial and ongoing support of community leadership is critical for encouragement and accountability. Success depends upon believing the process will lead to understanding and resolution in near and long term. Any occurrence that skittles the discussion has the potential to bring the process to an immediate (and possible permanent) halt. This brings us to the critical rules of conduct.
- Ground Rules. I view ground rules that are reasonable and supportable by the entire group as the glue that will hold the process together. The laying out basic rules of mediation procedure that apply equally to everyone, will keep the process moving and on track. Rules that are explained and provided early, distributed to each member, displayed at each meeting, and referred to consistently, are absolutely essential. Roger Schwarz (2013) describes the nine basic ground rules crucial to group meetings. I have very little to add to the list:
1. Generate valid information that will provide better/clearer/more honest understanding
2. No secrets. All relevant information distributed equally.
3. Agree on important words, their meaning and use.
4. Foster transparency. Always allow and encourage explanations
5. Foster interests. Get to the core of the discussion. Tease out the true meaning hidden by banter.
6. Support discussion that reveals the whys and how of a stated belief. Encourage questions and discovery.
7. Mutual agreement on where the process will (and won’t) go.
8. Facilitate difficult discussion. Don’t ignore hard topics. Aim for dialogue – not oration.
9. Use every opportunity to generate commitment to the process. Most important remember that consensus is not achieved until each group member embraces a decision that they own. This means each member / interest has fully contributed to the process in a meaningful manner, listened and understood opposing arguments and is willing to commit.
- Landmines. The process described might just give the impression that the exercise is smooth sailing 100% of the time. Unfortunately, it is not. Power, personality, media, current events, and other major influencers have the potential to get meetings off track. The skilled community mediator has training and experience in anticipating landmines and implementing processes to address potential meeting blowups. The primary function of the community meeting is to enable members to talk to each other. The goal – true dialogue.
Interruptions can be the bane of any mediation. Not all interruptions are negative. An active indication of agreement could be vocal support that prohibits the speaker from having their complete say. The community mediator will have the foresight and skill to graciously stop interruptions and allow the speaker to continue. Hostile, or negative interruptions are different and are not to be tolerated. The mediator that is in control, demonstrates positive leadership and is openly respected by the group will be better equipped to manage negative outbursts. The “Ground Rules” prove their value when guidelines are discussed and adopted.
We sometimes forget that silence can be as crippling. Without dialogue – the active give and take communication between interests – the meeting has effectively ended. The skilled community mediator will be able to urge the silent party to think about and explain the thoughts and emotions that lay behind the silence. Silence may also be used as a weapon. If there are not two points to be argued/discussed – there is no dialogue. The skilled community mediator will be able identify the reason behind silence, but will be able to use that knowledge to foster legitimate discussion.
Final Thoughts on Phase Three – The Mediation
The series began with a critical look at the importance of identifying the issues and players in planning for community dispute resolution through mediation. Stage two, mediation design, addressed the elements of who, what, where when and how. As demonstrated, like any solid structure, each phase relies on the strength and completeness of the prior steps. Once planning, preparation, and design of the community mediation process is well in place, phase three—the constructive mediation meeting may begin. Next week in our final segment, I will address community mediation success, how we measure short and long term success, and (most importantly) how long term success is supported as an ongoing resolution.
Craver, C. B. (2015). The use of mediation to resolve community disputes. Washington University Journal of Law & Policy, 48, 231+. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A431445696/AONE?u=usc&sid=AONE&xid=a377417b
Davidson, A., McKinney, S., Schwarz, R., & Carlson, P. (2013). The skilled facilitator field book: Tips, tools, and tested methods for consultants, facilitators, managers, trainers, and coaches. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Mayer, B. S. (2004). Beyond neutrality: Confronting the crisis in conflict resolution. New York: Wiley.
Martha Wilcoxson, MS, EdD, is a graduate of the Master of Science in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution program at Creighton School of Law. She can be reached at MarthaWilcoxson@Creighton.edu. She values your comments.