People who work in fields unrelated to alternative dispute
resolution often have rudimentary skill as conflict resolvers, perhaps without realizing
it. All it takes is proper instruction to polish and focus those skills, enabling such
people to put their innate talents to productive use — in ways ranging from workplace
negotiation to more efficient consumption of professional ADR services.
“A lot of professionals [outside the field] use these skills every day and have
some really good instincts,” says Scott McCreary, of Concur, in Berkeley, California.
With training, “What is often a disconnected set of instincts can be put together to
get a more coherent response,” he says.
Negotiation, mediation, and facilitation have been more familiar forms of ADR.
Recently, new hybrid techniques have emerged, such as consensus-building and collaborative
processes, that have been used successfully to resolve high profile public disputes. As
Carl Moore of The Western Network puts it, “Things like collaboration and
consensus-building are becoming normal ways of doing business. People need to be good
consumers of it.”
Being a good consumer of ADR applies to activities such as hiring someone to facilitate
a public meeting and seeking training to improve your own negotiation skills. Whatever the
specific application, taking a basic skill course in ADR techniques can improve those
decisions. A wide variety of training programs are available, which can accommodate a
range of time constraints and cost concerns. Basic programs that introduce participants to
various techniques in ADR are available through universities, private consultants, and
state offices of dispute resolution.
One good starting point for finding a course that suits your needs is to observe one or
“[Public or private-business] officials sometimes have fears that the training
might be too unfocused, or get out of control,” says Suzanne Orenstein of Resolve, in
Washington, D.C. “In helping people try to imagine what this process is all about,
observing a training is a good way of building a mental model of the opportunities and
application of the techniques.”
Ask the right questions
Often, a practical second step is to select and evaluate a trainer and then explore the
programs offered by that trainer. Chris Moore of CDR Associates, in Boulder, Colo.,
advises looking for a trainer who has done a lot of case work, and attending a short basic
skills course to assess a trainer’s capabilities.
In evaluating a trainer, McCreary recommends starting by asking the following
questions: “Does the trainer have dual expertise in the world of assisted negotiation
and in another field? Do they understand your professional culture? Do they have the
ability to balance both theory and practice.”
In choosing a trainer, look for the same qualities and ask some of the same questions
that you would in hiring a new employee, McCreary adds.
Tom Barkins, with the Oregon Public Utilities Commission (OPUC), helped his
organization issue a Request for Proposals for in-house ADR training. Barkins felt the
most important skill by a trainer would be the ability to “capture the imagination of
my staff and make the training relevant to our work.”
How some courses are structured
Most trainers offer basic courses that can run from six hours to an academic semester.
Courses that are shorter than two full days are largely for bringing decision-makers up to
speed on ADR, so they better understand the usefulness of the field and can better decide
whom to send for training. In the shorter courses trainers usually focus on mediation and
negotiation. Techniques such as facilitation are left for longer courses.
The University of Oregon law school offers a two-day mediation skills course that
exposes participants to both mediation and negotiation. In addition to providing
background on conflict theory, the staple of the course is a series of role-playing
exercises. The role-plays are based on actual cases involving community conflicts,
contract negotiations, and workplace conflicts.
Donna Silverberg, of the Oregon Dispute Resolution Program, a state office, takes a
different approach. “Public officials told us that they wanted more realistic
training that was more geared towards their role as participants as opposed to their
potential role as mediators,” she says.
By focusing on interest-based bargaining techniques, her program’s trainings allow
officials to gain a clear understanding of the role of participants.
Likewise, Alana Knaster, with the Strauss Center for Dispute Resolution at the
Pepperdine University school of law, offers courses that run six hours to two and a half
days for local government officials, aimed at improving participation skills in a mediated
The training first examines the steps leading up to a mediation, then how to be
effective at convening a mediation, and the process of establishing the ground rules. Once
the groundrules are established, substantive mediation role-play begins. The course also
tries to provide decision-makers with a framework for deciding when to use mediation and
understanding how mediation differs from facilitation.
Courses longer than two days offer more opportunities for practicing skills in
different situations and getting more feedback from the trainers.
CDR offers a five-day course in the mediation process at its Boulder training center.
Beyond offering extensive practice opportunities, the course covers co-mediation practices
and multi-party mediation. Issues such as cultural differences and ethical dilemmas are
thrown into the mix to demonstrate the potential complexity of mediation. This type of
intensive training is most beneficial for mid-level managers and front-line staff, who
often encounter such issues in their dealings with the public or other stakeholders.
Another consideration in selecting a training program is whether to attend a general
program that is open to the public or to bring the trainers to your organization. Tailored
programs have the advantage of offering role-plays and case studies that are directly
related to your organization’s needs. They can provide an opportunity to work on
conflicts anticipated by your organization.
For example, after Tom Barkin awarded a contract for training OPUC staff, a series of
meetings were held with the trainer. OPUC staff worked with the trainer to design case
studies that were representative of the types of conflicts and stakeholder positions that
are routinely faced by OPUC staff.
It is not uncommon for organizations that are facing a conflict to seek a joint
training session with the other stakeholders in the dispute. Chris Moore believes that
public agencies in particular benefit from this approach. “Public officials have
repeated interactions with non-profits, the general public, and business,” he says.
“One dispute can turn into a bad history and effect your future dealings with those
Instead of resorting to litigation or even mediation, parties convene a training
session and conduct role-plays of each others’ positions to help resolve the problem.
Tailored training can be more cost-effective for organizations interested in training a
large number of staff. McCreary uses this rule of thumb: “If an organization wants to
send less than 15 people for training, it is better to go to a general course. If you have
more than 15 people it’s more cost-effective to bring the trainer to you.”
Organizations such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have taken the tailored
training approach to build up their in-house cadre of staff trained to handle disputes and
provide introductory training to other staff. Training groups of staff at a time, EPA
usually clears the 15-person threshold; participants benefit from the specialized case
studies provided in a tailored program and the organization has built its internal ADR
capacity. Tailored courses attract organizations whose decision-makers are firmly
committed to ADR and are willing to invest in customized training.
General course have there own benefits. For one thing, such courses bring a broad
variety of participants together. “An advantage of a broad public is that it brings
greater realism to the role-playing,” says Knaster.
Public officials will find themselves outside of their organizational culture, and
they’ll have to deal with people who have different professional backgrounds.
Similarly, general courses tend to better reflect the public because they attract more of
a cross-section of people than tailored courses do. Also, the synergism that results from
bringing together people of different backgrounds with a common interest can make a
general course a very satisfying experience.
And, yes, trainees seek advice pertaining to their own workplaces. “We’ve
learned to include training sections for discussion of their own issues,” Knaster
In deciding which staff to send to a training, Knaster advises, supervisors should send
“either the people who are going to participate or people who will be impacted by
mediation or negotiation process.”
She cites one city that sent both the city manager and a city council member for
training so both the implementor and the decision-makers would be represented.
Outside of the basic-skill courses there are a large number of specialty courses that
focus on one technique or advanced training. In considering the next step after your first
course, Max Blazerman, who teaches negotiation at the Kellogg Graduate School of
Management of Northwestern University, offers this advice: “Everyone wants advanced
courses. I don’t think people need advanced training, just different courses. People
need more exposure to different teaching styles, concepts and scenarios, so take several
of courses from different trainers.”
Think about training in ADR as improving existing skills and not as learning a new
foreign language. However, as with a foreign language, practicing with a partner and
getting feedback on your performance will improve your ability to communicate.
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