I spent the last two weekends training to be a mediator. Career change? Not quite.
As the instructors and coaches, led by veteran mediator and retired law professor Ed Greenebaum, pointed out several times, we’ve all been mediating all our lives, trying to resolve conflicts between siblings or friends or co-workers or neighbors.
As an editor, I mediate conflicts and confusions between writers and their manuscripts, which leads to improved communication between writer and reader. Working for publishers, however, I deal mostly with words on my computer screen. I take care to edit and phrase my queries in a way that writers will find useful, but since I often have no direct contact with the writers, I don’t get much feedback. When I signed up for mediation training, I was looking for ways to translate my verbal skills into a face-to-face setting.
So no, I’m not contemplating a change of career. Editing and mediating are complementary skills. I am looking for a way to be more useful in the community, and you don’t have to live on Martha’s Vineyard very long before you see how miscommunication and noncommunication can mutate into longtime hard feelings, grudges, and outright hostility. The Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program, also known as the M.V. Center for Dispute Resolution, is a volunteer gig, however, so I won’t be quitting my day job anytime soon.
On the first Saturday morning, 15 of us trainees gathered around long tables set up horseshoe-style at the Tisbury Senior Center. We included longtime Vineyard residents and recent arrivals, retirees and full-time workers, a couple of lawyers, several with social services experience, a police officer, a theater director, and a TV journalist. We were an articulate bunch: our backgrounds were varied, but all stressed communication, through both the spoken and the written word.
From the beginning we were introduced to the basic principles of mediation. Over the four all-day sessions, through lecture, discussion, and role play, our understanding of those principles deepened and even started to become second nature.
- Mediation is voluntary. Both the parties and the mediators are there because they want to be.
- The process is confidential. Both the parties and the mediators agree not to disclose any communication, written or verbal, and the parties agree not to subpoena the mediators in any legal proceeding.
- Decision-making authority rests with the parties themselves.
- Mediators make every effort to act impartially.
- The parties may seek legal or other advice before signing a final agreement.
- The M.V. Center for Dispute Resolution requires its mediators to disclose to appropriate authorities their concerns about the abuse or neglect of elders or children.
For the role plays, we’d break into small groups of three or four; over the four days, each of us had multiple opportunities to play both client and mediator. Explaining the ground rules was relatively easy. From the basic info supplied to the mediators, some of the cases looked like no-brainers. Tammy and Roger were splitting up, they’d worked out most of the details, but they couldn’t agree on who should take the TV or the DVD player? How hard could that be?
Hah. Harder than you think. Once the parties started talking, it became clear that Roger hadn’t really accepted that the relationship was over, while Tammy had another boyfriend and was already moving on. The dispute, in other words, wasn’t just about stuff.
Subsequent role plays and discussion underscored the same point: the mediators’ task is encourage each party to describe the situation as s/he sees it and to identify his or her interests and concerns, then to encourage both parties to agree on what problems need to be solved and what a good outcome would look like. “Mediation,” according to one working definition, “is an intervention to improve the quality of a negotiation.”
Mediation, I quickly figured out, has a few things in common with editing. You learn the rules and guidelines and basic principles, but the job involves a lot of improvisation.
It can also involve time constraints. In recent years, most of the MVMP’s cases have come through Small Claims Court. When the court meets, several experienced mediators are on hand, and the clerk magistrate offers all disputants the mediation option. If they agree, they meet with mediators right at the courthouse. If they reach an agreement, it goes to the court for approval. If they don’t, their case will be heard in court the same day. The time allowed is generally no more than an hour.
On the second Saturday afternoon of the course, clerk magistrate Liza Williamson of Edgartown District Court explained how this works. The following morning, Margot Parrot, lawyer and law professor, gave a presentation on ethics. Massachusetts requires that an ethics unit be included in mediator training programs. On Martha’s Vineyard, hardly anyone is more than two degrees of separation from everybody else, so ethics are of more than academic importance.
As Ed Greenebaum passed out our certificates late Sunday afternoon, I was acutely aware of how much I didn’t know, but I had to admit that I knew a lot more than I had when I walked into the room the weekend before. Enough to know that I’m on a new journey, and curious to see where it takes me.