Oprah Winfrey last week settled the defamation case brought by Nomnuyo Mzamane, the former headmistress of Winfrey’s girl’s school in South Africa. “Winfrey made certain remarks following a 2007 sex-abuse scandal at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. Mzamane’s lawyers claimed that, because of Winfrey’s visibility and popularity, she could easily sway the public to believe that her statements were fact rather than allegations.” said Afro.com. However, “Winfrey’s defense for her statements was that she was exercising her right to free speech and she was just voicing her opinion about the incident.” See “Oprah Winfrey Settles Defamation Lawsuit”.
What’s remarkable about their settlement is that Winfrey and Mzamane met together on the eve of trial without their lawyers to craft what their representatives described as a peaceful resolution to their mutual satisfaction.
Once a lawsuit is filed, litigants don’t usually meet together without their lawyers to try to reach a settlement. Few lawyers would even advise it, and that’s not because the lawyers are always anxious to display their courtroom skills. Normally, by the time a dispute makes it to trial, the parties have exhausted their own abilities to settle the controversy. “According to the suit, there were several comments which drew the ire of Mzamane.” said Afro.com. What it takes is someone who hears a statement like that and understands that the parties need to come together face to face, and it takes a person such as Oprah Winfrey with above average communication skills to accomplish what few can do on their own.
This is not to say that litigants meeting to talk about their cases isn’t wise. But after months of litigation, people tend to become even more polarized, which is why having an experienced mediator there to facilitate the communication, keeping them on track as they talk about settlement, is often a good idea. That’s the main reason mediation exists. But most people need a skilled communicator who is not emotionally involved to facilitate the kind of peaceful conversation Winfrey and Mzamane had.
Mediation is the process of sitting down with the person or company with whom you have a dispute and talking about possible solutions. Successful mediation involves brainstorming, negotiating, talking about the problem with the goal of resolving the dispute cooperatively, collaboratively, with the help of a professional, unbiased third party who brings experience and creativity. And here’s the best part: the litigants retain control of the outcome, instead of turning it over to a judge or jury. It is the peaceful way to resolve a dispute, the civil way, and I would argue, the new American way.
From all indications, I believe that Oprah would agree with me.