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<xTITLE> A Teacher’s First Mediation Experience Over One Semester</xTITLE>

A Teacher’s First Mediation Experience Over One Semester

by Joanne Kilgour Dowdy
October 2019 Joanne Kilgour Dowdy
INTRODUCTION

Hands-on experience with the stages of mediation is an important component in the training of mediators. This story unveils my initial exposure to the mediation process through the intakes done weekly for students experiencing conflict in a college setting. Over the course of a semester it becomes evident to me that learning to do intakes properly is important to successful mediation. Also, I realize that a high level of exposure to mediation literature and role-plays is indispensable to the development of a good mediator.

The student mediation center on my campus allowed me to do an internship for one semester. I worked with the resident mediator and listened to students who needed support as they resolved conflicts. As an intern, I answered two of the questions that Moore (2003) suggested consumers ask when enrolling in mediation training.  Among his nine prompts, the two points that are particularly relevant to my experience include (a) practicing individual tasks or stages of the conflict management process and (b) enacting role-plays or simulated dispute resolution so that there is an opportunity to play negotiator (disputant), mediator or facilitator in order that a high level of competence is achieved. The success of this internship for initial mediation training is important to expanding my professional development as a professor.

On Being Reflective

Kraybill, Evans, and Evans (2001) believe that people from the same culture “deal with feelings differently” (p. 101), therefore mediators need to be flexible and to develop an ability to adapt to situations and the different demands on emotions. Each person has a unique way of dealing with feelings and becoming aware of these habits of thinking and emoting is important to the work that the mediator does. Mediators who are ready and willing to accept and use strong feelings as they do peace building work manage their self-awareness and experience with flexible thinking in the face of powerful emotional expressions.

In preparation for a mediation the authors (2001) recommend that the mediator do a self-check to acknowledge her weaknesses and strengths, and to raise awareness of any prejudices in her mind and heart that might hinder the “unbiased” attempt to work on behalf of the parties involved in the mediation. Putting effort into “a sense of connection to God” (Kraybill, Evan, & Evans, 2001, p. 37) may be one of the most dependable avenues that peace builders can use in their effort to serve the people who come to mediation for some relief from the burden of conflict. Working towards the “goals of building relationships and empowering people to address systemic injustices” (p. 37) requires honesty about one’s motives for doing mediation.

David Augsburger (1995) presents a clear directive for a teacher’s ambition as a reflective practitioner. The author quotes Lederach (1988b) as stating that the participants involved in a mediation must gain increased knowledge about conflict so that a model of intervention can be created for their context. The solution to the conflict comes out of the experience of the participants in the mediation.

This focus reminds the mediator analyze herself and enhance her ability to see how others function as separate entities. Being reflective, as the mediator at the student mediation center stated is “thinking about what we do and why we do it” (Personal communication, Spring, 2018). Teachers can enhance their reflective practice by learning to: (1) Acknowledge your own feelings and attitudes in a situation (by putting myself under a microscope for analysis); (2) Calm yourself by doing a breathing exercise to lower the tension in your body and brain when you are in a tense situation; (3) Call on resources that can support you as you respond to the difficult situation in hand; (4) Take a break from the encounter that has you immersed in the tense feelings that are being experienced; and (5) Process the event so that it’s possible to come to terms with the facts and accept the reactions that have been stimulated in one’s thinking and emotions. Cultivating mindfulness helps the mediator to be present for herself and the clients in mediation so that the process is a positive experience for all involved.  

The mediation center’s leader is careful to remind me of the difficulty to stay mindful at times since the mediator has to be watchful about how “conflict can make the body FEEL and why it’s so necessary to be reflective so we aren’t hijacked by fight or flight at the table” (Personal communication from J. Bleak, April, 2019). Managing body language and the impact of stress is also highlighted by Rogers (2016) who sates that: “We can watch discomfort, giving it room to move, while ceasing to fear and accommodate it” (p. 67). Also, we learn that the ability to “hold discomfort in the great spaciousness of observing mind” (p. 67) is the purpose of meditation.

Background of the Internship

In order to gain some experience in conducting mediations with students at a college, I received permission to do an internship at a midwestern university. The aim of the semester-long training was to give me hands-on experience conducting “intakes” at the center. These intakes were to be conducted with students who were advised to meet with the center’s mediator and share their understanding of the root of a particular conflict being experienced with another student. The goal was to provide the students support in resolving the situation through a constructive process. The use of the mediation services was promoted to teach students how to resolve their disputes in and outside the classroom.

My internship was to: (1) provide time necessary to receive training in mediation skills at the student mediation center, (2) include several professional development opportunities that the center facilitated over the semester, and (3) develop a peer-reviewed research and practitioner manuscript, and conference proposals based on the experience of the internship at the mediation center.

Because of the confidential nature of the mediation process, the mediator in charge of the center found it practical to include me in the first stage of mediation when intakes were conducted. This initial step at the center is when the mediator decides (1) if the situation is right for the mediation process, and (2) whether the students are interested in going through a mediation process to improve the situation and possibly resolve the conflict.

Intakes

The intake is designed to establish if the conflict deserves mediation. The mediator explained that “You have to figure out what happened with the situation. You have to determine whether or not it’s appropriate, and you have to educate the party on what the process entails” (Personal conversation with J. Bleak, February, 2019). I learned to get a basic understanding of the conflict, educate the party about what to expect at the student mediation center, and advise them of the confidentiality of the information shared at the first meeting. Only in the instances where domestic violence, issues of homicide or suicide are raised, is the information shared with authorities outside the center. The student is also advised that if a mediation should take place, the mediator’s job is not to tell them what to do, that they make their own decisions. The mediator is there to help the two students in the conflict to keep the conversation on track. At the end of the exchange with the student at the intake, the mediator must ask “What questions do you have?” It is important to have a good tone, express good vocal empathy, and to do paraphrases of the information that the student shares as the story unfolds so that the story of the evolution of the conflict is clear to the mediator. This is described as “reflective listening” and is useful to deepen the communication level, help the speaker gain greater self-understanding, clarity, and vulnerability through the listener’s careful mirroring of their story. This reflective listening supports a shift in perspective through the listener’s reframing of the information being shared (The Compassionate Listening Project provided by the Cleveland Mediation Center, 2016). Also, Mumford (2015) described the deep listening experience as one where we stop and listen and refrain from offering advice.

The Internship

Each of ten weeks of the semester I was invited to participate in intakes conducted at the mediation center. Students made appointments and, when they arrived at the office, the mediator and I greeted them and invited them to join us in a room set up with three chairs. The chairs were placed in a triangle with lots of space between each chair. The use of a circle or triangle, I learned, is important to the communication dynamic that is created between the student and the mediators in the meeting. The student was asked to sit near the exit, a bottle of water was offered at the start of the intake and a box of tissues was placed on the desk within her easy reach. Moore (2003) discussed the importance of the physical arrangement of the setting and suggested that the shape of the table and arrangement of the chairs can lessen differences between disputants. The scholar reminds us that “seating patterns” and the distance between the seated clients are important features that ensure that there is no demonstration of a hierarchy of power or “less one-sided exercise of power” (p. 154).

The intake followed three steps at each meeting. The student was told that the team appreciated them taking time to come to the meeting in the midst of their busy schedule. Some questions that helped the team to “to get to know them” a little better were posed. Next, the student was asked what they thought “was at the root of the conflict.” The student was encouraged to give more information about their perspective about the problem that they were experiencing with another student. Once the mediator felt that the student had told enough about their conflict, and that the situation did not warrant being reported to another authority because of there being domestic violence or a threat of suicide, then the student was told about the services that they could use at the mediation center. Details of the mediation process were described if they had never been involved in a mediation. Also, they were told about one-on-one conflict coaching that was offered so that they could better handle themselves in future situations that they might find difficult to settle. At the end of the exchange with the student they were invited to ask questions that would help them clarify any information that was shared. Sometimes the students found that invitation the right time to share more information about the conflict that they were describing to the team. Each student was encouraged to send a message if they thought of questions after the meeting at the mediation center.

Sessions for role play with the mediator were conducted in the mediator’s office once a month. These enactments gave me an opportunity to work on the skill of eliciting information from the “student” who came to the mediation center to do an intake. The sessions were recorded and used as a tool for reflection at a later date. Hearing the process of prompting the “student” to share as much information about their conflict was important to me learning the steps of an intake.

Over the course of the semester I was encouraged to read three books including the authors Moore (2003), Adams (2015), and Schwartz and Brennan (2013). The books afforded me insights into the theory that underpinned the approach that was being used in the mediation work. Other readings, completed before the internship, provided reference points during the internship. The reading list included books by Kraybill and Frazer Evans, (2001), Domenici (2001), Augsburger (1995), Bolton (1986), Fisher and Ury (1990), and Rogers (2016).

Discussion

Moore (2003) recommended that training and practice beyond those courses offered by higher learning seminars are necessary to properly prepare participants to serve in the mediation profession. My ability to participate in intakes at the center trained me to conduct the first step of the mediation process.  Referred to as “step zero” by the resident mediator, the importance of listening to students who were advised to visit the center allowed me to participate in a real-world setting. The repetition of complaints that students described, including students’ unhealthy personal habits or the disorganization of small shared spaces, afforded chances to review the prompts that the mediator used to help each student unpack their understanding of the conflict at hand. The mediator summarized parts of the account as each story unfolded and used prompts like “what else happened?”, so that the student could describe their conflict in minute detail. In role plays I used the same kind of prompts so that I could unearth details about the conflict that was being presented. I practiced using open-ended questions that would focus on getting information to inform a decision about conducting a mediation.

Further, I learned to listen and look for the ways in which each student became more willing to tell their story as the prompts led them to share detailed information about the conflict. What started out as a hesitant description of a misunderstanding would, over a short time, unfold as a series of small disagreements and unveiling of different standards or expectations of behavior that culminated in the final verbal explosion over some minor incident like a choice of plastic spoons over metal ones. I noticed that the mediator’s body language remained open, knees spread and arms resting on the thighs as she leaned forward and engaged the student who was describing their understanding of the causes of the conflict with another student.

On reflection, I could see how the setting of the small room and the intimacy of the discussion with the mediator, myself and the student, encouraged an atmosphere that created a rapport that was non-judgmental. Each student could see that their perspective was valued and that it was acceptable to share their feelings about the deterioration of their attitude to the situation. The sense of intimacy and the valuing of the student’s experience are two of the most important characteristics that made an impression on me as I learned the process of doing intakes. It became evident that every person has a story, that their experience is valuable, and to hold those beliefs as a mediator is important as one considers the root of each conflict. Listening to each person’s side of a story infers that each world view is equally valuable.

Simkin (1971) listed eighteen qualities that a mediator ought to embrace in order to be successful. These include “the patience of Job”; “the guile of Machiavelli”; “demonstrated integrity and impartiality” and “sufficient personal drive and ego, qualified by a willingness to be self-effacing” (Moore, 2003, p. 451). The first item in this series, based on the semester-long training at the mediation center, I believe is rightly placed at the top of the list. Taking the time to listen to others is imperative if we are to assure them that they are respected and that their story is valued. This is a cornerstone of the mediation process and as Hansen (2003) suggested it is the “curiosity” exhibited by the mediator that facilitates a similar stance in the parties in conflict. Through this approach the scene is set for all the people at the negotiation table to be available to outcomes that may not be apparent at the start of the process.

Conclusion

This internship represented the oft repeated idea that human beings want to feel appreciated and respected.  Kraybill, Evans and Evans (2001) addressed the importance of empowering others, creating the foundation for a mediation session/s, and providing safety for all involved. Further, they argue, mediation should allow the human part of our being to come to the table and be given due attention/acceptance as the conflict is settled in a mutually agreeable way.

Moore (2003) pointed out that successful mediation training programs ensure that four areas of education be addressed so they include (1) teaching a process that both the mediator and the parties use to resolve dispute; (2) that plans to attending special problems need to be taught; (3) context and substantive background information need to be learned by students; and lastly, (4) problems related to ethical questions need to be presented and analyzed so that novice mediators are prepared for issues that may arise in the process of the mediation. The experience of doing intakes during the semester at the mediation center afforded me the opportunity to learn a process that all participants could use as they investigated the rationale for proceeding with a mediation to solve the problem being presented.

Further, the fact that two of fifteen items recommended for consideration of the quality of mediation training programs are addressed in this internship, helps to make clear to me that a high level of training was being facilitated over the course of three months. Moore (2003) advised consumers of mediation training programs to look for “an opportunity to practice individual stages of the conflict management process” and “an opportunity to engage in role-plays or simulated resolution of disputes” (p. 460) so that they become qualified at the skills required for doing the mediation role. The number of cases that a trainee participated in and the length of time that they spend in the role of the conflict mediator all contribute to the success of the mediator’s preparedness to support the mediation process. Practice demands hands-on experience and that means learning to listen in the mediation context. Withholding judgment of participants is imperative to the process of participants resolving their conflicts. This internship afforded me ample opportunities to sharpen my listening skills, and withhold my judgment of students, in the context of the intake during my internship.

 

ENDNOTES

Adams, M. (2015). Change your questions, change your Life. 12 powerful tools for leadership,

coaching, and life. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Augsburger, D. (1995). Conflict mediation across cultures: Pathways and patterns. Westminster: John Knox Press. 

Bolton, R. (1986). People skills: How to assert yourself, listen to others, and resolve conflicts. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Domenici, K., & Littlejohn, S. (2001). Mediation: Empowerment in conflict management. Long Grove, Ill.: Waveland Press.

Fisher, R., & Ury, W. (1991). Getting to yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in. New York: Penguin.

Hansen, T. (2003). A Narrative Approach to Mediation. Retrieved from http://www.mediate.com/articles/hansenT.cfm.

Kraybill, R., Evans, R., & Frazer Evans, A. (2001). Peace skills: Manual for community mediators. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Lederach, J. P. (1986).  “Assumptions.” MCS Conciliation Quarterly (Summer): 2-5.

Moore, C. W. (2003). The mediation process. Practical strategies for resolving conflict. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mumford, G. (2015). The mindful athlete: Secrets to pure performance. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.

Rogers, H. (2016). The mindful twenty-something. Life skills to handle stress. . . & everything else. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Schwartz, J., and Brennan, B. (2013). There’s a part of me . . .Oak Park, Ill: Trailheads Publication, Publishing Division of the Center for Self Leadership, P. C., 2013.

Biography


Joanne Kilgour Dowdy is a Professor at Kent State University, Ohio. A graduate of the Juilliard School in the theater division, Dr. Dowdy continues to use her drama training to prepare teachers for the literacy classroom, and as a performer who facilitates writing development through interactive workshops. Her major research interests include documenting the experiences of Black women involved in education from adult basic literacy to higher education. She has written and edited sixteen books. Her first book is a volume co-edited with Dr. Lisa Delpit, entitled, The Skin That We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom (The New Press). Her fifth book: Ph.D. Stories: Conversations with My Sisters, is published by Hampton Press and was awarded the 2009 American Educational Research Association Narrative and Research Special Interest Group's Outstanding Book Award. In 2014, Olympic Hero: Lennox Kilgour's Story (Dr. Dowdy's first children's book) was released by Caribbean Studies Press.



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