I am currently reading The Promise of Mediation, which is inspiring me to remember why I turned to mediation as a way in which I can help make the world a better place. When I finish the book I will do a review of it, but I first want to work out for myself why I believe in mediation, without significant influence from the book.
I became a mediator because I believe that mediation has the power to fundamentally change for the better the way in which we – as individuals, as organizations, and as societies – handle conflict. Conflict is inevitable, but a destructive response to it is not. Aggressive, competitive, and dehumanizing responses to conflict, from the scale of door slamming to wars, may smother things for awhile, but can never truly resolve the underlying issues and restore healthy relationships. Mediation, on the other hand, can create a non-threatening space where each party can feel heard and begin to understand the perspectives of the other parties.
It is important for me to remind myself of why I became a mediator because my experiences so far as one have felt like a bit of a letdown. Three of the mediations I have done have been between a landlord and a tenant where the tenant has already moved out and they are in disagreement over how much of the security deposit should be returned to the tenant. Even if the parties reach an agreement, I feel somewhat unsatisfied after such mediations. I can and do feel good about handling the process well and saying the right things at the right time – there is no question that there are some skills I am actively developing by doing these. But in the end it always comes down to quibbling over dollar amounts and finally reaching a compromise that neither side is particularly happy about. I know that money is very important to people, but I really think there’s got to be something more to mediation.
Perhaps part of why I find such mediations unsatisfying is because what I am really interested in is relationships. I want to help people have healthy relationships with each other. In the landlord-tenant cases I described above, the parties can walk away from the mediation and never see each other again. There is not much of a relationship to preserve there. Not only do I care particularly about relationships, though, but I think that helping to build and restore healthy relationships is where the power of mediation really lies. Not that landlord-tenant cases are bad, but they aren’t using the potential of mediation to its fullest.
Another aspect of my dissatisfaction stems from the process itself. In my mediation training, the part of the process that I felt was most significant was the story-telling and summarizing at the beginning. As mediators, we are supposed to allow each party to tell their “story” – what the conflict is and why they are there – and then we summarize what we’ve heard, trying to identify underlying needs and feelings. Essentially, the mediator should use active listening at this point. I think each party needs to really feel heard before they can be open to finding a collaborative solution. In some of the mediations I have done, I have felt that my co-mediator skims too much over this initial portion of the process and is eager to go right to the part where the parties brainstorm ideas for solutions to the conflict. While this can still result in agreements that are satisfactory to both parties, I feel that it again falls short of the potential of mediation.
As I continue to develop my skills on whatever mediations come my way, it is important that I keep my vision of what mediation can be. I know that there is great potential in mediation and I need to maintain confidence that I will eventually find a way to make use of that potential. I do believe in mediation, and I will not let the sometimes mundane cases shatter that belief.