Is it possible to mediate with a group of people? Or between two contending groups? The answer is a resounding “Yes,” although MSAC once encountered a party that declined to go to mediation on grounds that it should be solely a one-on-one process.
But happily, that is not the case, and some of our most productive mediations have been those that involved groups that disagreed within themselves over major issues or situations where separate organizations were having trouble working together.
I use the word “productive,” not just because the outcomes were positive, and because relations improved almost as soon as an agreement was signed, but also because the long-range dynamic of those communities was clearly changed for the better. One of the most important contributions of mediation is its long-range impact on people who have to work or socialize together. Unlike arbitration or judicial decisions, where one side wins and the other loses, mediation results in a win-win solution, so that both sides are able to feel comfortable about interacting.
What happens in a group that allows tensions to rise without addressing them (a situation that we often see in local government, non-profit organizations or church congregations)? Angry words may be exchanged and people take sides. Typically, the situation becomes so uncomfortable that some parties leave to find another church or another job. Hard feelings result, people avoid each other, and in a small town like Gettysburg, Biglerville or Littlestown, rancor persists because there is no crowd to melt into.
So what does group mediation look like? To begin with, it can include as many persons as necessary on both sides. But aside from the number of people involved, group mediation looks a lot like one-on-one mediation. The mediator invites both sides to tell their respective stories. In group mediation, a number of people may speak, which may extend the length of the session. The mediator will summarize the issues so that they are clearly visible to everyone and then invite people to brainstorm for solutions.
Group mediation can be especially productive because so many minds are at work on the same problem! Brainstorming encourages a free flow of ideas and may result in possible solutions that no one had previously thought of. Once all ideas have been generated, the mediator asks both sides to evaluate those which have the best potential to address the problem. Eventually, action steps emerge which will involve both parties in resolving the ongoing tension. At that point, an agreement is usually signed by all concerned.
The beauty of mediation is that when people work together to address a problem under the guidance of a mediator, they are more likely to be able to work together in an ongoing relationship. Moreover, in the process of arriving at action steps, small compromises are made by both sides, so that the agreement does not favor one side or the other, but assures that each group gives up some things and is proactive on others. It’s a victorious moment when an agreement is reached after hard work on both sides. It may take more than one session to reach that point, but long-lasting good will is worth it!
Janet M. Powers is Presiding Officer of MSAC and Professor Emerita at Gettysburg College.