Community conflict is a fact of life. This year has created new and critical challenges that fuel social and cultural unrest. Many communities are turning to mediation as a way to achieve understanding, resolve conflict and create a better future for their citizens. This article is part one of a four part series addressing the four important steps in the community mediation process: planning, preparation and design, process, evaluation and monitoring.
Mediation is unique in the world of dispute resolution and community mediation is one of the more complex methods of resolution processes. Unlike arbitration which conflict resolution culminates in a decision by an arbitrator, mediation is a form of dispute resolution that is owned by all stakeholders – in this case the community. Valid community mediation is shared effort by interest groups to fully articulate their concerns, understand key issues important to each party, and desire to work together to arrive at a mutually agreed goals. Community mediation that results in conflict transformation is not simple, quick or without pain and effort. But the results of properly prepared and orchestrated community mediation has the power to transform. Cultural disputes experienced by communities are rarely one dimensional and identification and participation of impacted parties (stakeholders) requires time, patience and above all genuine understanding. This is the role of the mediation pre-planning process.
Community Mediation Process Planning
Anchoring Community Support
Make no mistake, the community mediation process and ultimate agreement is arduous. Successful mediations do not proceed without facilitation by an expert mediator who is able to create important dialogue between all parties in order to understand all issues. However, a successful mediation begins with the genuine support of local government and community groups. Perhaps the most important first step is the sincere commitment of community leaders to achieve a mutual agreement.
In some cases, garnering support of community leaders requires helping all participants be on a level playing field with a firm understanding of the mediation process. Not everyone has the same understanding of mediation and community mediation has unique aspects that must be understood. All members involved need to understand and appreciate the fact that community mediation is not distributive justice – it is a resolution to community conflict that has been designed, built and maintained by the community. It will be the citizens who own the community mediation process. Citizens will evaluate the success of the process short term and long term. The “Agreement to Mediate” must be comprehensive and written in a reader friendly fashion. Expectations of time, process, evaluation and monitoring are key to the agreement.
The process community mediation is lengthy but the potential outcome is powerful. Mediation that is properly planned, orchestrated, monitored and assessed has the ability to create understanding and transform. The initial hurdle for mediator is to prepare and stakeholders for the process of transformation. The desire to see a clear and immediate resolution to conflict is often the first hurdle in community mediation. The more effort the mediator devotes to preplanning and explanation of the importance of the planning process, the more realistic expectations will be developed by the community. Planning may sometimes verge on the tedious must absolutely be thorough. It takes time to identify concerned parties and even more time to adequately interview and document held nuances of dispute. Community disputes are rarely between two parties, and in recent disputes over municipal statue placement, special care should be devoted to constantly expanding the circle of interests. Charting parties and relationships is a useful method to get one’s arms around the essence of the dispute and to visually demonstrate critical issues. Legitimate contacts should be identified from community, government, education, health, cultural, and yes – spiritual interests. From this broad foundation, the scope will most likely broaden.
Interviews - Creating Genuine Dialogue
When your neighbor asks you how you are doing, you most likely respond with a one sentence reply because (1) it is a formality, and (2) you do not feel compelled to engage in deeper conversation. Not so for mediation conversation. When interviewing stakeholders, the mediator does not stop at once sentence responses. A seasoned mediator has the ability to use quality open end questions to expand and tease out valid beliefs and concerns that are the groundwork for the mediation process. If the initial interview produces abbreviated responses to basic questions the mediator begins with the disadvantage of true understanding. Mediator skills that make the party feel essential to the process, that they are heard and (most importantly) understood is the first step in creating valid conversation that will build a true understanding of the conflict(s).
Because most community conflicts involve many people (stakeholders), the mechanics of medication are beyond the scope of management for one mediator. When the stakeholder population is large and varied, interview teams can be of tremendous value. The key is team coordination insuring transcription of narrative interviews are transcribed and interpreted in a group setting. This is an important procedural step for one very obvious reason. We all have our own biases, skill sets and history that influences interpretation of narrative data. The value of the team approach in data interpretation adds substance to issue identification and interpretation.
An added bonus to the team approach is the fairness of interview scheduling. When interviews are held simultaneously, interview teams have the added advantage of dispelling impression of favoritism – each group response is as valued as all. The savings of time by team interviews also keeps the process on track as well as prevents the morphing of important points over time through back channels.
Revisit, Revisit, Revisit
The meaning of a response should never be assumed. Stakeholders will often open with accepted rhetoric. True meaning and feelings are often shielded by stakeholders who may not have had the opportunity to verbalize their personal thoughts. Revisit also has the advantage of allowing the stakeholder to ruminate on memories and significant events. If the mediation is to be successful, all parties must be assured of their opportunity to contribute comprehensive input.
Many a community mediation has languished due to poor (or no) pre-planning. The sad fact is that if mediation gets off track in the early stages and evaporates into an administrative memory, community perception about mediation and willingness to continue the process to achieve long term success is lost. Positive resolution and understanding mediation sets the groundwork for long term resolution and understanding. The result is a better world – what we all want.
Next week, I’ll address the preparation phase. Each community has its own personality, infrastructure and needs which dictate the preparation process.
Martha Wilcoxson, EdD is a graduate of the masters Negotiated Conflict Resolution program Creighton School of Law. She can be reached at MarthaWilcoxson@Creighton.edu. She values your comments.