Volume 12, Issue 50 ~ December 9 - December 15, 2004
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Goodwill to All Working for a Peaceable Kingdom
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Goodwill to All Working for a Peaceable Kingdom
by Carolyn Sullivan

Woman in tribal dress throws hex bag at a rival …

Two armed security guards share spouse …

Mistress attacks wife with a knife …

Jerry Springer?

No, another day in the life of a mediator.

Along with 50 or 60 other volunteers, I have been mediating for the Anne Arundel Conflict Resolution Center since it started 10 years ago. Among us, we mediators have pretty much seen it all.

Neighbors come to discuss who owned the tree that got cut down, then dump 20 years of bad feelings on the table. Spouses crushed by infidelities want revenge — and the kids. Co-workers sabotage one another’s workdays, hiding important papers and stealing lunches.

My favorite was a retailer-customer mediation. It sounded usual; a woman bought her husband a gift that never arrived. Then the shopkeeper showed up at mediation in his Santa Claus outfit — belt, beard and all — and stacked his pill bottles on the table before us to make the un-missable point that this was very stressful for him.

Mediation’s Many Faces
By definition, mediation means facilitating a discussion between two or more parties in a dispute to help bring about agreement or reconciliation.

In real life, mediation has all the faces people do. It’s a way to deal with the bully in the school yard. From kindergarten through 12th grade, mediation is supervised by school teachers and led by specially trained peer mediators who are the same age as the kids in conflict.

Mediation is part of the juvenile criminal justice system. Kids who stray off the path meet with the person they have wronged, an encounter that helps humanize and rehabilitate both parties.

Mediation fits into the civil court system, where parties to lawsuits negotiate an agreement that best suits both interests.

Mediation is also family guidance for people getting divorced. Fracturing families must learn how to deal with changes in roles, duties and opportunities and to face those changes with emotional balance.

Mediation is a labor tool to find a better way of ending conflict and improving feelings in the workplace.

Large organizations like hospitals and churches also use mediation as a human resources management tool to help hundreds of staffers work out day-to-day stresses.

Finally, mediation is how diplomats prevent countries from going to war — or help countries at war find peace. From the Middle East to Bosnia, mediation is the resolution, by political means, of armed conflict.

Disputes at all those levels make work for some 50,000 people in the U.S. who mediate full- or part-time or as volunteers. Among those thousands are career mediators who specialize in health care or the environment; independent or private mediators who deal primarily with divorce and family disputes; lawyer-mediators who mediate legal disputes as part of their law practice; social workers who work full-time in court-sponsored mediation programs; and professionally trained volunteers like me.

Around the country, we volunteer in a national network of some 400 community mediation centers to help people resolve conflicts and problems that might otherwise end up in criminal, civil or small claims courts. Mediators for the special problems of families — from separating parents to disgruntled extended families — take another 20 hours of training. Like the Anne Arundel Conflict Resolution Center, all mediators handle neighborhood disputes over noise and fences, trees and trash, parking and pets; family fusses from fractious teens to warring parents; and court cases such as charges of harassment and disputes between landlords and tenants.

Conflict ignites when opposing principles clash.
Is Anybody Listening?
What mediators of all sorts know best is that most people don’t listen to each other. Nowadays, listening can feel like a competitive sport. It ís rare to sit quietly without the background static of traffic, radio, TV or music blaring in our ears. In this aural clutter, listening does not come easily.

It’s especially difficult to listen to others when we are under stress or in conflict, but stressful and conflicting situations are the times when listening is needed the most. When you really understand where someone else is coming from, it can alter your perspective on the conflict and make the situation more workable.

I remember a mediation between business partners hoping to salvage their business relationship. Mary complained that when they met to brainstorm strategies to win new clients, Brian was overbearing and ran roughshod over her every suggestion. Brian was astounded; he just thought he was giving feedback. Once they understood their different communication styles, they were back on track.

Listening sometimes takes us to a problem far removed from the one that brought us to mediation. If 50-year-old siblings come to talk about a mother who can no longer live alone, and one suddenly blurts out, Mom always loved you best, we know we have other issues, beyond the care of an aging parent, to discuss.

Amazingly, people in conflict sometimes haven’t talked about the problem with each other before entering the mediation room. Occasionally, one of the disputants doesn’t even realize there is a problem. In mediation, they hear the hurt, grievance, even anguish in the other person’s voice and see their facial expressions and body language.

Most people don’t listen to each other.
How Sparks Fly
Conflict ignites when opposing principles clash — or when years of smoldering hostility suddenly burst into flame. Such friction could be co-workers arguing all day, neighbors staging feuds or separating couples trying to do the best for their children. Whatever form conflict takes, it taps deeper than what people think to how they feel, which may be a fire raging out of control.

Often, sparks from a small incident fan flames before people can extricate themselves without losing face.

The speed of escalation surprised two long-time neighbors. They had been good friends, visiting each other’s homes for holiday celebrations and cookouts. One Saturday morning, Tom thought it would be a great idea to get his mowing done bright and early. Trouble is, 5am on a Saturday is too bright and early for most people. Pete stormed out of his house, and the fire was fueled with strong words, many unprintable in a family paper.

The neighbor’s differences could have been solved at this point with a call, a note, an invitation to share a beer. Instead, it escalated into an angry inferno, until both wives were screaming like fishmongers at each other and Tom was making a regular habit of mowing his lawn at 5am on Saturdays. Pete’s retaliation was inventive. He found his son’s boomerang and practiced throwing it across the adjoining backyards whenever Tom had guests over for barbecues, which was often.

Finally one wife had enough; she called in the mediators.

Putting Out the Fire
Mediation often begins just like that, when somebody’s had enough of the heat.

Other cases come to the Anne Arundel Conflict Resolution Center by word of mouth; from suggestions by the police, a counselor or an attorney or as referrals from the States Attorney’s Office or the District Court.

Calls to the Mediation Center begin with listening.

Specialized mediators (we call them intake workers) listen to the problem, asking questions to help determine if mediation can snuff out, or at least contain, this dispute.

It takes two to heal a grievance, so the next step is inviting the opposition in. By the time we called both Tom and Pete to set up an appointment, they were ready to sit down and talk.

We meet at a neutral place in the county, such as a library, a school or a church. Our center on Riva Road in Annapolis was convenient for Tom and Pete. Usually, there are just four people, the two participants and the mediators, all sitting around a table in the mediation room.

Inside that closed circle, mediators first outline the process. Then we ask the opponents to explain the problem. While one talks, the other listens. No one is right or wrong; they’re just two people trying to agree on a plan that works for them. Thus, no two mediations are ever the same.

Tom and Pete were both angry at the start. They wouldn’t even look at one another.

Tom began by explaining that he had just wanted to get his mowing done early that first Saturday as he had to take his child to an early-morning soccer match out of state. He hadn’t meant to be thoughtless, but …

Then Pete explained that he had been up much of the night with a sick kid and had just gotten to sleep when the mowing started. He hadn’t meant to be belligerent, but …

As disputants look at all the possible solutions, mediators listen, reflect, brainstorm and ask neutral questions. Once Tom and Pete listened to each other and expressed their emotions, they began to see, and jointly explore, ways to take the heat out of their conflict.

We mediators were simply facilitators, providing a safe place for these two to vent their feelings, inviting them to hear the other person’s point of view, nudging them in the right direction, toward solutions that best meet both their needs. Mediators don’t extinguish an argument, but we can equip people with fire-fighting tools, such as listening, to get their conflict under control.

We do not make decisions or pass judgement; we don’t provide legal advice or recommend terms of an agreement. The opponents themselves sort out their problem.

Tom and Pete may never be friends again, but they quenched their disagreement, made their peace and signed a truce — a written agreement enforceable as a contract.

When disputants don’t reach an agreement (about 15 percent of the cases we handle), they can still choose to have their case handled by the court or resolved in some other way.

Stressful and conflicting situations are times when listening is needed the most.
What’s in It for the Mediator?
Mediation is hard work for everyone involved.

I once waited for two hours in a court-referred case while one man, who was prosecuting the other man for assault, waited for the apology that would make the whole thing go away. It eventually came. We all breathed deep, they hugged — and the problem was resolved. As simple as I’m sorry.

After a session, even mediators — and certainly the former antagonists — can feel as though we’ve done a hard day’s work or run a road race. One reason mediators walk out exhausted is that we must remain truly neutral. As a person with opinions, I can tell you neutrality does not come naturally. But part of our training teaches mediators to recognize problems that may be personal hot buttons. I have reacted in mediations to issues about teenagers and elder care, both while I was dealing with my own situations.

To remain neutral when your buttons are pushed, you have to work harder, mentally checking body language and facial expressions to keep the playing field level. Neutrality is one of the many skills a mediator must learn. Behind this fire-shield, we can talk individuals through resolving problems without ourselves stepping into the fire.

Mediators train for at least 40 hours on how to listen and how to provide feedback, how to help identify and clarify issues and options, how to help in reaching solutions and how to write clear and durable agreements.

Before any of us go to work mediating, we attend several cases as observers; then we pair up with a senior mediator.

So we’ve learned that we must check our biases at the door. We also learn that appearances are misleading. The sweet little old lady may be a pit bull in disguise; the tough tattooed biker may be an abused husband.

With the hard work come rewards.

I came to mediation through a back door. I was chair of the YWCA’s Racial Justice Committee when I was invited to join a group in Annapolis, spearheaded by Margie Bryce and Bill Davidson, to brainstorm how to start a conflict resolution center. I became so interested in the process that I signed up for training to become a volunteer mediator. As a public relations and marketing consultant, I have always been a communicator — but that didn’t mean I knew how to listen. What I learned is that listening is often more powerful than speaking.

Being a mediator has made me a better listener and deepened my appreciation for how complicated human relationships truly are.

Beyond such general rewards are personal ones. I find it a privilege to be invited into people’s lives, if only for two or three hours, to listen to their hurts and disappointments, to share their hopes and dreams, to get acquainted with how they tick. To help alleviate a situation that may be stressful, uncomfortable or downright painful for them, that’s an honor.

The Way to a Better Way
Resolving disputes through mediation is an ancient technique. Asian cultures have solved legal and personal conflicts this way for thousands of years. Mediation also has a rich history here, writes Jerold S. Auerbach, in his book Justice Without Law?

More than 350 years ago, the Puritan founders of Dedham, Massachusetts, outlined a system of informal mediation in their covenant. In New Netherland (the predecessor to the state of New York), Dutch colonists established a Board of Nine Men as “friendly mediators and arbitrators.”

In colonial Virginia, the legislature noted the “excessive charges and great delays” of litigation and encouraged citizens to resolve disputes by other means. Later, beginning in the 1800s, Chinese immigrants on the West Coast, Scandinavian immigrants in the Midwest and Jewish immigrants in New York set up mediation boards to resolve disputes within their own communities.

As a community resource, mediation is little more than 10 years old in Maryland. In recent years, huge steps have been taken to organize community mediation and link it to the court system. This year alone, 85 cases have been referred to us from District Court. Another 94, filed by county residents, were cases that quite probably would have gone to court if they hadn’t been mediated. We do not have a dollar figure per case but, clearly, community mediation saves our county courts hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

The court system recognized that mediation can help some people achieve satisfaction in less time for less money. Courts benefit, too, from less burden on their dockets.

Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, led the way, pioneering Maryland’s Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office. Funded from the state judiciary’s budget, this court-related agency promotes alternative dispute resolution in every field, from Maryland’s courts to communities, schools, state and local government agencies, criminal and juvenile justice programs and businesses.

Maryland’s Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office supports our Anne Arundel Conflict Resolution Center with a grant. This past year, we received $70,560 to help underwrite our programs. They also provide grants for training in schools, for new community mediation centers and to help with a Children in Need of Assistance mediation program for those in foster care.

Mediators don’t extinguish an argument, but we can equip people with fire-fighting tools, such as listening, to get their conflict under control.
Now, About Your Problem
The kids next door laugh and yell and rev their engines all night. Your precious parking space outside your front door is occupied when you get home tired after work. You keep your lawn mowed, your sidewalk neat and your siding painted — but there’s an eyesore across the street.

What can you do as the sparks fly and arguments escalate? Rush in like Rambo? Resign yourself to teeth grinding, high blood pressure, stress and headaches?

Instead, walk through these steps to try to solve the problem yourself.

One: Talk to the problem.

Talk to your irritant calmly and in person. He or she might not even know that there is a problem. Most people don’t mean to be obnoxious; they are often just oblivious. Offer assistance if it’s appropriate. A cooperative, friendly approach resolves many problems and may gain you new perspectives and a new friend.

If you’re uncomfortable doing it on your own, ask a friend to go with you.

Two: Research your case.

If talking doesn’t solve the problem, research the issue. Perhaps there is a cultural or a generational or a gender or a lifestyle difference. This knowledge might not make the matter go away, but you may understand the situation a little better and be more tolerant.

At other times annoyances like excessive noise, trespassing and vandalism are against the law. The State’s Attorney’s Office investigates criminal complaints like these to see what laws apply and can then provide mediation. Problems such as junk cars, parking on lawns, accumulating trash and debris are all violations of city codes. Knowledge of the law may help you deal with an uncooperative neighbor.

Three: Put your request in writing.

If the problem persists, put your request in writing. The letter should carefully, and politely, state the situation and possible actions to correct the problem. If the problem reoccurs, keep a written record.

Four: Fed up? Call the Anne Arundel Conflict Resolution Center.

You may want to try mediation to resolve a conflict because it gives you a chance to say what’s important to you and to hear the other person’s perspective. It can help you to figure out your own needs and to meet your opponent’s needs by reaching a creative, customized solution that works for you both.

If mediation keeps you out of court, it will save you both time and money. It feels better, too, as it gives both parties the power to make decisions rather than to have a judge or jury decide for you.

The telephone number is 410-266-9033. Ask for Intake.

When Sue made that call, she was pretty desperate. She and her husband, Ed, hadn’t spoken for months. They knew their marriage was finished, but that didn’t solve problems like who should leave the house, how to tell the three kids or what the day-to-day logistics should look like. Parenting-plan mediation gave them a safe place to talk through these issues and to come up with ways they could continue to be parents while ceasing to be a couple. The relief at knowing what came next was so huge that they left for lunch together to continue talking.

At times like that, we mediators feel that we’ve realized the Christmas message, bringing a little piece of peace to Anne Arundel County.

Help Anne Arundel Conflict Resolution Center this holiday season as you shop at ARTFX, 45 West Street, Annapolis, 11am to 8pm Friday, December 10.

Hosts from the center look forward to meeting you. There also will be refreshments and entertainment as you shop for original arts and crafts.

For the center to benefit from your purchases, you must bring this page of Bay Weekly.

Editor’s note: Names and situations have been changed to protect the confidentiality of mediation clients. Volunteer mediators Fred Pollock and Carolyn Rodis demonstrate the range of emotions during mediation, leading to a peaceable kingdom, as illustrated above more than 150 years ago by American folk artist Edward Hicks.

About the Author
A transplanted Londoner, Carolyn Sullivan has been active in the Annapolis community for nearly 27 years. She has a PR and marketing consultancy called PR People and is involved in many community activities, such as the YWCA and Public Relations Society of America, in addition to the Conflict Resolution Center. She and her husband, a Yank from Boston, have two daughters, Kristen and Joanna, both in college.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.