Janet M. Powers
When we at MSAC offer Conflict Resolution Training, one of the first things we do is to ask our prospective mediators to think about a personal conflict, something that may have been bothering them for awhile. They have an opportunity to reflect silently about apparent surface issues as well as the issues underlying a difficult relationship or some other troubling situation. We ask them to think about why the issue matters and what values might be involved. Whether we are aware of it or not, most of us are invested emotionally as well as intellectually when a conflict disturbs our sense of well being.
Feelings surround every human interaction, even those that seem to be practical aspects of everyday life. Conflict can produce heightened feelings, such as anger, hurt, or anxiety. When disputants take positions and refuse to budge even an inch, conflict is deepened. Although stubbornness, rigidity, or fierceness may appear to come from strength, in reality they stem from deep vulnerability. People who intimidate others may in fact be deeply wounded. They may or may not realize that they are actually frightened behind a façade of outrage.
Often, even though a current situation provokes fear and insecurity, these may trigger deeply-rooted, even unconscious memories of past injuries from others. Many of us bring a great deal of childhood “baggage” with us into adulthood. Although facilitated mediation can not heal those psychological wounds, mediators learn how to promote healing and to create an environment in which it can occur. The mediator empowers parties to state their feelings directly to each other, which very often provides an opportunity for healing.
Feelings are an essential part of every mediation session. As mediators are trained, they learn how to get parties to respond constructively to their own feelings as well as those of the other side. The mediator acknowledges the feelings of both sides without passing judgment or implying right or wrong. An important step is to assist disputants in clarifying what they may need in order to experience healing, especially in regard to immediate issues. If deeper wounds lie with others, the mediator will assist parties to find whatever help they need.
But no mediator feels an obligation to heal others. The challenge for mediators is to be helpful to both parties without creating an illusion of “miraculous problem solver” or setting up a dependent situation. The turning point on the road to personal and spiritual maturity comes when individuals recognize that they, and no one else, are responsible for overcoming the wounds of life. Sometimes mediation draws out those deeper feelings and results in emotional growth. And when that happens, it’s deeply satisfying to all concerned.
It’s unlikely that this sort of growth will occur with typical forms of conflict resolution, such as litigation, revenge or pressing charges. Mediation, however, can accomplish a great deal when power is not one-sided or threat of violence is not an issue. It’s time to recognize the many situations when ADR or alternative dispute resolution would be appropriate and to make use of those community resources – MSAC, mediation-trained attorneys, and Family Group Decision Making – which allow for kinder, gentler and less expensive ways of solving conflicts.
Janet M. Powers is MSAC Presiding Officer and Professor Emerita at Gettysburg College.