Phase Four – Measuring Community Mediation Success: A Realistic Approach
The success, or failure, of a community mediation project is subjective. Small wins for one stakeholder may be a monumental accomplishment for another. Mediation participants may even see their original resolution objective evolve during the process. This is good news because it demonstrates the ability to learn and develop one’s opinions and beliefs. The efficacy of community mediation defies a score. Hedeen (2004) notes community mediation success is not a quantitative solid. Success can and should be measured based on participant and community satisfaction, the sense of fairness, and longevity of resolution. It is difficult, but not impossible, to measure these perceptions.
However, one outcome that does not qualify as success is a resulting firm decision of right or wrong. In other words, groups who enter, participate, and exit a mediation process should not have the objective of being proven right (or others being proven wrong). Mediations that chase this type of outcome are doomed to fail. So the question looms: what is successful mediation? The key to the answer lies in the original objective statement. If the onerous process in phase one and two in identification of all parties and interests is fully completed at the very onset of community mediation, the process will have a valid objective statement on which to build.
Perhaps most important, mediation objectives may be as multifaceted as the emotions that surround the dispute. Mediators and administrators seeking efficiency by grouping complaints or dispute topics may easily torpedo a potential positive outcome. Mediator neutrality is a noble goal, but may prevent preliminary planning that might uncover attitudes and beliefs that cross the isle (Mulcahy, 2001). In addition, given the history of the dispute, time and circumstance may deem it impossible to label two sides (Walters, 2012). Overtime, roles and attitudes may change. For example, in the community statue debate, an efficiency vs. comprehensive goal might be:
|Efficiency Goal: Remove or Retain Statue||Comprehensive Goal: To be Heard, Understood and Considered; To Create Community Dialogue|
|Group Representation:||Group Representation:|
|Retain Statue – Sons of Italy, Historical Society (partial representation)||Cultural: Italian, Hispanic, Indigenous, Slovenian, Unknown|
|Against Statue – Coalition Ethnic Rights Group||Business: Adjacent Business, Business Network(s)|
|Economic: Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development|
|Community: Library, Historical Society|
|Education: Local School Districts, Colleges and Universities|
|Local Government: County, City, Planning, Parks and Recreation, Roads, Police, Sheriff, District Attorney|
Short Term Success = Ongoing Support
Group mediation benefits from the “circling back” process which allows participants to reconnect with initial needs and desires. An additional benefit, which is perhaps more important, is to demonstrate progress towards conflict resolution. Recognition of small moves towards ZOPA (zone of potential agreement) have the ability to support continued work. Every mediation meeting should incorporate review of the original stated objectives, areas of personal discovery, and current discussion status.
Short term success is not necessarily a definitive plan of action or a solidified mediation agreement. Success in the short term may be as basic as the ongoing support of meeting and discussion. This small success may be particularly difficult to explain to leadership who wants to know a resolution rather than continuum of meetings. In community mediation participant interviews, I try to ask questions that will help reveal intent. For example, the statue debate demonstrates the importance of digging below the right-wrong issue to reveal stakeholder descriptions of justice.
Long Term Success = Ongoing Communication
Long term community mediation success is best seen through the lens of transformation. In community cultural disputes, ongoing communication and dialogue may be as important as dispute resolution. Communities who have experienced successful mediation of cultural disputes are sometimes amazed at the emerging cohesive nature of community dialogue. These communities may be inspired to either establish or further support community relations organizations.
One word of warning: burnout. Community mediation is onerous and exhausting for all those involved and it is understandable that participants want nothing more than to resolve a dispute and put the program in their rearview mirror. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to take a break from the meeting process, or worse, simply “put the issue to bed”. This is where the skilled mediator assists the community in one last exercise: building a community conflict resolution structure. The time and effort devoted by all stakeholders (government, community, business and education) in successful mediation has resulted in a regional pool of conflict specialists. This is a priceless outcome and one that has the potential to transform a community.
In a world of budgets, schedules, elections, and all things related to time and effort, we can be forgiven in wanting a definitive box to mark success or failure in community mediation. The truth is that success is defined by the community. Outside observers may be excused in not being able to grasp the true outcome of a community mediation exercise. What cannot be excused is the inclination of outside observers to espouse personal (or organizational) opinions on the efficacy of a community mediation exercise. Stakeholders live, work, and relate in the community, and it is the stakeholder who completes the report card.
Hedeen, T. (2004). The evolution and evaluation of community mediation: Limited research suggests unlimited progress. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 22(1), 101-134.
Mulcahy, L. (2001). The Possibilities and Desirability of Mediator Neutrality – Towards an Ethic of Partiality? Social & Legal Studies, 10(4), 505–527. https://doi.org/10.1177/a020411
Walters, H. (2012). Exploring the everyday world of hate victimization through community mediation. International Review of Victimology, 18(1), 7–24. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269758011422472
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