Place to Work Things Out
Anne C. Paine
with an introduction by Samantha Spitzer
the exception of the introduction, which was written by
the Associate Editor of the Report, this article is reprinted
with permission from Oberlin College. Paine's article
originally appeared the June
2002 edition of Around the Square,Oberlin's online
debate about how one should mediate has been going on
since the dawn of mediation. Mediators and programs can
choose to be, among many other styles, transformative,
evaluative, facilitative, settlement-oriented or restorative.
A discussion about various mediation styles used by mediators
on campus can be found in Volume
1, Number 4 of the Report, in an article by Bill Warters
about Variations in Campus Mediator Style.
course there are other styles of mediation not mentioned
in the Warters article. One that is increasing in popularity
is the personal narrative model. This model, also known
as the storytelling approach, recognizes that people make
sense of their lives by thinking about experiences and
relationships in terms of stories. Narrative mediators
are interested in how conflict becomes part of a person's
life story, and how a person can rewrite a dispute and
view it in a more positive manner. Storytelling helps
people open up, as individuals are able to explain their
life story instead of focusing just on the dispute.
challenge facing narrative mediators is helping disputants
tell their stories fully, and in a way that doesn't just
react to the accusations of the other, but rather helps
everyone see their lives in a richer and broader context.
Also challenging is gaining an understanding of how social
structures and inequalities may limit the kinds of life
narratives that are possible for members of one group
kinds of concerns are often raised by the advocates of
a social justice perspective, and for good reason. Power
and privilege imbalances influence perception in problematic
ways. Mediators seeking to find a balance among storytelling,
social justice and other more traditional mediation models
have their work cut out for them.
number of campus conflict resolution programs are experimenting
with new approaches that work to maintain this balance.
Oberlin College is
a good example. The Oberlin
College Dialogue Center (OCDC) began operating in
Fall 2001 under the direction of Yeworkwha Belachew. To
date, 18 campus mediators have helped to resolve more
than 20 disputes. Although challenging, the style of mediation
used by the OCDC appears to be working well.
addition to being on the vanguard of the mediation movement,
Oberlin is one of only six institutions using a cutting-edge
theory of mediation that incorporates the philosophy and
theory of social justice. Based on the idea of personal
narrative, or storytelling, this model was developed over
the last decade by Leah Wing '84.
model has received great interest in the mediation field
and is getting some visibility on the national level,"
said Wing, a private mediation consultant who also directs
the campus mediation program at the University of Massachusetts,
Amherst, where she recently completed her doctoral dissertation
on mediation and race.
with Deepika Marya, an accomplished mediation trainer who
also teaches English at the University of Southern Maine,
and Diane Kenty '77, director of Maine's Court Alternative
Dispute Resolution Services, Wing provided an intensive,
50-hour training program for Oberlin's new mediators last
training the OCDC mediators received is fundamentally different
from that done in most mediation programs," said Wing.
"Two basic concepts have traditionally been used to
train mediators in North America and Europe: neutrality,
which means that mediators don't take sides, that they're
impartial and equally distant from both parties; and symmetry,
which is connected to the concept of fairness - giving each
person the same amount of time to speak, for example."
and symmetry are not universally used as the core values
of problem solving, however. The result, said Wing, is that
despite honorable intentions, mediation as generally practiced
does not serve all people equally.
has shown that more than 70 percent of the time, the agreement
reached in mediation is geared toward meeting the need of
only one party. Critiques by white women and people of color
have illustrated how bias regularly affects mediation practice,"
overcomes these problems by viewing mediation as a narrative
process rather than a bargaining session or a problem solving
session. In her model, the opportunity for both disputants
to participate fully is paramount.
goal is to set up the entire process to be as inviting and
inclusive as possible for everyone," Wing said.
accomplish this, a mediation program first must have a diverse
group of mediators. Oberlin's team includes 6 faculty and
staff members and 12 students of differing ethnic backgrounds.
The person who does the initial interview and assigns mediators
- at Oberlin that's Belachew - must consider the storytelling
needs of the participants. Do they prefer a mediator whom
they know, or someone they've never met? Are the disputants
most comfortable speaking a language other than English?
than training mediators to be impartial, Wing trains them
to be "multipartial," by which she means able
to assist both participants in telling their stories. This
can result in the mediation becoming asymmetrical - for
example, because of differing communication styles, some
people need more time to express themselves. Some people
need to express anger before they can discuss the conflict.
Cultural values assigned to such things as respect for elders
and eye contact also can affect how people come into the
asking our mediators to pay attention to the cues they get
from the participants," Wing said. "We're asking
them to think about how to open up the space by the kinds
of questions they ask, so both people can tell their story."
gives an example of a typical roommate conflict. A student
comes to the mediation session complaining that his roommate
constantly locks him out, even when he is just visiting
friends in the next room. The roommate views the situation
differently. From a less affluent background, he cannot
afford to replace items if they are stolen.
traditional mediation would focus on achieving a solution
to the seemingly simple problem of the locked door. Storytelling's
more holistic approach allows the roommate to frame the
problem from his perspective, rather than just react to
the first student's telling. This method unearths the underlying
issues, increases communication and understanding, and improves
both participants' awareness of the cause of their conflict,
enabling them to devise a "future story" (as Wing
calls the final agreement) that's truly mutually agreeable.
The storytelling model works as well in homogenous populations
as it does in diverse communities like Oberlin, Wing said.
even seemingly homogenous populations aren't really homogenous.
There will still be issues of class, sexuality, religious
differences, athletes versus non-athletes - so many issues
can play out besides racial and cultural differences."
new mediators are strong proponents of the model.
"The training made us aware that what's discussed in
a mediation is housed within the individuals' experiences,
and not housed in our own experience. In order to understand
that, you have to understand society and how groups in our
society have interacted," said mediator Albert Borroni
'85, director of the Oberlin Center for Technologically
Enhanced Teaching and a lecturer in neuroscience.
skills we use are similar to those used by traditional mediators,
so it doesn't affect how we go about the mediation, but
it does affect our level of consciousness," agreed
mediator Joya Colon-Berezin '02.
mediators also say that their work is rewarding, but very
Siegler '02 co-facilitated a meeting for international students
just after the September 11 attacks. "The purpose was
to provide a space for people who didn't feel at home or
safe, so they could talk about their feelings. It was difficult
sometimes because not all international students have the
- getting two people to a place where they can actually
talk to one another - is really hard work," Borroni
though it is a nerve-wracking and difficult task at the
beginning, it is also very rewarding to see people own the
outcome of the resolution at the end of each process, "
project of Campus Conflict Resolution
Supported by a FIPSE grant from the US Department of Education
and seed money from the Hewlett Foundation-funded CRInfo
to CMHE Report
(Attn: Bill Warters)
Campus Conflict Resolution Resources Project
Department of Communication
585 Manoogian Hall
Wayne State University
Detroit, MI 48201.
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