The Community Mediation Process
Phase Two – Preparation and Design
We’ve been watching a small community deal with conflict surrounding the legitimacy of a historical statue located on public land. Just like many other communities around the nation, special groups representing civil and social rights have found voice and courage to protest “objects of suppression”. And just like many other communities, groups with vested interests in the history and culture of their community, have the sense of responsibility to protect the heritage of their forefathers. The debate is multidimensional and fluid. The task of achieving agreement between special interest groups about which historical artifacts should, or should not, be displayed, may seem impossible. However, the work of creating valuable dialogue and understanding is not only possible, but an opportunity to build a stronger community. This is the task of a successful mediation.
This article is part two in a four-part series examining the mechanics in building successful community mediation. The series began with a critical look at the importance of identifying the issues and players in planning for community dispute resolution through mediation. Stage two, mediation design, relies heavily on the completeness of planning in phase one. Our community mediation model can be seen as a pyramid, with the success of each step relying on the completeness of the foundation of the prior step.
Addressing the preparation and design of community mediation gives us a chance to address the elephant in the room: Is the process perceived as fair, and does mediation have the potential to achieve justice for the community? Just as the strength of a building relies on its foundation, the strength of the mediation design relies on the thoroughness of the planning stage. The design process addresses the legitimacy of neutrality and the preservation of social justice. Successful community mediation design builds processes that will keep the mediation team ever mindful of both.
Neutrality. Neutrality of private peace mediators in multidimensional societal disputes lies at the core of the mediation process (Lehrs, 2016). Mediator and mediation are neutral as well as confidential. The mediator has no legal status or influence over decision-makers. The design exercise identifies the different circles of influence: official decision-makers, public opinion, rival side(s), and the marginalized. Equal consideration to each group.
Make no mistake, the ability to maintain a neutral demeanor is a challenge. Even the knowledgeable and neutral mediator needs to be aware of the threat he or she could is perceived as having attachment or bias – a perception that could thwart the process. The good news is that a neutral demeanor can be practiced and perfected. Vocal cues such a words of support or encouragement must be measured. Visual cues such smiles nods, frowns that might indicate bias should be limited. Mediation planning must start with a balanced and respected approach to all interactions. During the entire mediation exercise, perceptions and meanings will be constantly read into actions, choices of phrasing, and attitude. Just as an actor trains for a role, the mediator must prepare for neutrality.
Social Justice. It is the duty of the mediator to identify vulnerable groups in community conflicts. The objective is to give a voice to all parties. This is the heart of the design phase. Successful mediation that facilitates useful dialogue, takes care to consider the right of each individual to be heard. This is not an easy task. Marginalized parties may not be comfortable with the candid sharing of beliefs. Others may have difficulty verbalizing ideas and concerns. Legitimate thoughts and beliefs should not be ignored. On the other hand, non-essential topics should not be allowed to sidetrack the process. It is a balancing act at best, and the wise mediator will ensure that private issues do not become public issues.
It is interesting that one of the main arguments against community mediation is the risk that power and population imbalances will deny the disenfranchised equal representation (Palma, 2019). This is why preparation plays such a critical role in identifying weaker groups and the planning methods to be used to ensure group contribution and interaction. This is imperative for a legitimate process. Sometimes termed “justice from below,” valid community mediation that pays attention to all community interests will promote positive social change (Asenjo Palma, 2019).
Communication. The preparation phase is also the beginning of valid communication. Status reports on logistics and action items released in the planning and design phases should be shared openly with all concerned parties. Neutrality depends upon information equality. Identical information must be provided to all parties in the same timeframe. The method of information delivery should be fair. There may be participants who do not have internet or be able to read. Valid considerations for communication schedules that will allow all interested parties know when and what to expect, is key to community understanding and acceptance of the mediation process.
Logistics: Where – What – When. Logistic design is critical in planning public mediation. Unless size and population demand multi-meeting venues, one central, nonaligned meeting location, accessible by all modes of transportation, is critical. A good example might be a central civic center close to public transportation. Scheduling is just as important. The timing and frequency of meetings must be designed with stakeholder groups in mind. This is why we include questions about accessibility, mobility, and time commitments in phase one initial stakeholder conversations. The restorative process of mediation is aimed at bringing together the community in conflict to find a resolution. Mediation designed in detail based on extensive information gathered from all stakeholders gives credibility to the process and to the mediator. Preparation and design provide a strong foundation for effective dialogue.
Comprehensive planning, preparation, and design of the community mediation process will pave the way for phase three—the mediation exercise.
Asenjo Palma, C. (2019). Conflict resolution in community development: Are the benefits worth the costs? Critical Social Policy, 39(2), 268–288. https://doi.org/10.1177/0261018318780162
Lehrs, L. (2016). Private peace entrepreneurs in conflict resolution processes. International Negotiation, 21(3), 381–408. https://doi-org.ezproxy.csupueblo.edu/10.1163/15718069-12341342
Martha Wilcoxson, MS, EdD, is a graduate of the Master of Science in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution program at Creighton School of Law. She can be reached at MarthaWilcoxson@Creighton.edu. She values your comments.