Conflict Resolution

I am a volunteer mediator since 2007 for Montgomery County Mediation Center (CRMC) and Washington County Community Mediation Center (WCCMC) - trained as a community mediator by the Community Mediation Maryland (CMM) in 2006.

Here is a definition for mediation (taken from the Community Mediation Maryland Website):

Mediation is a voluntary and confidential process in which one or two neutral mediator(s) help two or more people find win-win solutions to their conflict. The process is implemented by volunteers who are professionally trained and are recruited to represent the diversity of the neighborhood they serve. The community mediators guide the participants through a process that helps them to first identify their issues and then generate their own solutions.

There are different styles of mediation. The one I will be detailing below is one of them that is performed in community mediation by many state Maryland, county mediation centers. All these centers are non-for-profit organizations and they provide their mediation, facilitation services for free. You can find a list of conflict resolution centers in the state of Maryland with their contact information here:

Three Pillars of Mediation

  • Mediation is voluntary

Participants of mediation attend with their own free will. The process is theirs, they decide if they need ground rules, they decide if and when they want to end the mediation. The success of mediation relies on participants will to manage their own conflict, and they can not be forced to participate to the process. Mediations centers only arrange a mediation session if voluntary participation is achieved.
  • Mediation is neutral

  1. Mediators are responsible for providing a neutral process to the participants. There are different interpretations of what neutrality means. What is meant by neutrality within the context of mediation is as follows: Mediators must not judge participants, they do not tell them what to do, they do not offer their opinions or life experiences, they do not advice (no counseling!), advocate or take sides. The whole idea is to empower the participants to make the process theirs. See below for the role of the mediators in mediation process.
  • Mediation is confidential

Mediation is a confidential process. Mediators cannot be asked to testify in courts and they are not to reveal information about a mediation beyond the mediation sessions. Motivation behind this is not only to protect mediators but also, and more importantly so, to protect the participants. Mediation relies on participants' voluntary attendance. They will be able to work through their conflict as long as they feel safe within the process. Confidentiality is there to assure a safe environment for the participants to work on their conflict without the fear of being held responsible for what they said in the process. There are exceptions to confidentiality; child abuse, elder abuse and credible threat of violence. If mediators suspect the presence of one of these situations they are responsible to inform proper authorities.

What do mediators do during mediation?

After talking about so much about what mediators are not to do, lets talk about what they do in a mediation. Mediators provide a process by which they gather information and facilitate communication around the conflict to help the participants make progress towards mutual understanding, problem solving and an agreement. In a community mediation model the process consists of five steps:

  1. Introduction to the process
  2. Information gathering
  3. Listing of the topics
  4. Brainstorming
  5. Agreement

Mediation starts with mediators (in a co-mediator model) explaining participants what to expect from the process. They give them clear description of the steps of the process (the list above). They explain a mediators role in the process, and other logistical details. Following this step, comes the information gathering stage. Mediators use a technique called strategic listening. By asking open ended questions (as oppose to yes/no questions or long speeches) mediators encourage participants to provide information. The goal here is to capture the feeling, the value, i.e. what is important to the person, and the topic. Most of the time conflict is not about one thing, and this process allows the participants to explore, in depth, what their values are and how they feel about what takes place from their position. Mediators reflect back based on what they heard from the participants; their feelings, what is important to them and associated topic around which the conflict intensifies. The reflections must be in a neutral language and not the reiteration of participants' positions (positional statements by the mediators can cause feeling of side taking on behalf of the participants).

In the third stage, the mediators inform the participants about the topics around which an agreement can be worked out. One important point here is that the agreements cannot be about the values of the people (I am yet to see a single example that an individual voluntarily negotiates about their values). Yet most of the time a conflict escalates from the point of views associated with the values. Hence it is important for a skillful mediator to point out, in this stage, what the topics are (say, it is about the fence that separates the yards of two neighbours). Mediators ask for confirmation if the participants recognize those topics as something they want a resolution around. Mediators remind the participants, based on the information they gathered in stage two, what was important to the each participant individually about that topic (say privacy for one neighbour who puts the fence and aesthetic of the neighbourhood for the other neighbour) and how they said they felt about it; hence the importance of determining the values of the individuals.

Once a full list of topics have established and the participants feel that it is a complete list, that is to say if they find a resolution for each topic the conflict would be resolved, mediators inform the participants that they can move to the brainstorming stage. At this stage, participants are ask to come up with ideas as solutions related to a topic at hand. The comments on the ideas' feasibility or whether or not they are agreeable are left for later. All the effort is focused on the creative thinking for solutions. No idea is to be left out! Mediators facilitate the brainstorming stage by reminding what was important to each participant and how they felt around that topic. Once there is a long enough list of ideas collected, participants can move to select the those that are agreeable to them. Skilful mediators push the participants to come up with a large number of ideas. Most of the time participants get stack after couple of ideas, which are related to their initial positions and which they were pushing during the escalation of the conflict before they come to mediation. It is at this point mediators encourage them to think outside the box without giving them suggestions themselves. In my experience most of the agreeable ideas come after participants break this wall.

At the last stage, participants are asked what ideas are agreeable to them on the list. Note that the mediators are not asking them what is not agreeable; which could create a re-escalation of the conflict between the participants. Ideas that are readily agreeable to all the participants are marked with the other ideas that participants feel that they can agree on it after some adjustments. At the end of the process mediators list the ideas that are acceptable to all participants. Mediators work with the participants to clarify the details around the agreeable ideas, particularly about time commitments, dates, individuals that will be involved and what the participants will do if there were unexpected developments. After details are established and participants are satisfied with them, the agreed points are written down, and process moves on with the next topic. At the end, all the written items gathered together in an agreement and signed by all participants and copies of the agreement are distributed to each individual. The agreement can sometimes be an enforceable contract by law.