A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by an attorney for a party to a conflict involving land and water issues. She had been referred to me by a husband and wife who were long-time colleagues of mine. He is an environmental and public policy attorney and had seen me in action on more than one complex environmental case and was obviously impressed with my skills as a Group Facilitator and Mediator. She is a former volunteer mediator with Jefferson County Mediation Services (I am the Executive Director of this community mediation program) and has worked with me on conflict resolution trainings in schools. So, they were a reliable referral source for the attorney who contacted me about being the mediator for her case. Furthermore, she had already visited by website, www.mediationworks2.com and was satisfied with my nearly 30 years of experience in this field. At the end of our conversation, she told me she was going to contact the other two sides to the conflict (one of which was a municipal government) and ask for their approval for me to be their mediator. Since this conflict was right in my professional wheelhouse, I was understandably excited by the prospect of mediating this case.
A few days later, she contacted me again to tell me that the other two sides to the conflict had rejected me as the mediator because they needed a “good water attorney” to mediate the case, and she could not move them from that position. She said she was sorry things had turned out this way and hoped to use my services in the future. I hope she will have occasion to do so.
This little story speaks volumes about the basic misunderstanding most people have about what we as conflict resolution professionals do. We do not provide contextual knowledge about a situation – that’s what hired consultants are there to do. We do not provide legal advice – that’s what each party’s attorney is there to do. We don’t provide authoritative reality checking to the parties (as some retired judges do when they “mediate” a case – in essence a forced settlement conference) – that’s what those same attorneys are there to do. If they didn’t know about the particular set of laws and regulations applicable to the conflict in question, the attorneys shouldn’t have taken their client’s case in the first place.
So, what do we mediators and facilitators provide? We are experts (after nearly 30 years of successful practice, I guess I can call myself that) in helping parties to ferret out what the real issues are, and what they really want and need in order to reach a mutually acceptable settlement to their dispute. To do that, I reach into my conflict resolution toolbox to first give parties a safe space in which to discuss their issues. From the attorneys’ perspective, I am the arbiter of the process, much as a judge is the arbiter of the outcome. I then use my hard-won skills to assist the parties (and, if present, their attorneys and technical consultants) in communicating with each other about the things that are important to them in a constructive way. This kind of professionally assisted dialogue, more often than not, results in an agreement to which everyone involved has contributed (and which, later on, they will uphold and defend because it’s theirs) I (and my professional colleagues) bring the crucial element to the conflict resolution room – the skill set to help everyone truly communicate and have individual and collective ownership of any decisions reached.
Although I was originally educated to be a research scientist in the environmental field, over my long career as a Group Facilitator and Mediator, I have worked on conflicts involving business contracts, discrimination allegations (as a 20-year mediator with the U. S. Postal Service), real estate, family dynamics, workplace issues, and, yes, environmental and public policy conflicts (some of these cases going on for months or years). I am able, as are my many colleagues in this field, to adapt my varied skill set to the conflict at hand.
In summary, conflict resolution professional bring their own highly adaptable expertise to the conflict table, and those skills, by themselves, deserve respect. I think the parties and attorneys in the case I described earlier in this narrative missed out on an opportunity to use a well-seasoned Mediator and Group Facilitator to give them a great chance to reach a positive and lasting resolution to their conflict.