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Spotlight on Economics: The Art of Mediation

Mediation is an art as much as it is a science.

By Cheryl Wachenheim, Professor

NDSU Agribusiness and Applied Economics Department

It was one of those snapshots in time that will be forever seared in my memory.

It was the moment I realized that parenting is not about ensuring everyone is happy and the family moves along in complete harmony, but rather it is about maintaining a sense of humor as your offspring learn to navigate this world.

I would like to share that this moment coincided with an important milestone in the lives of my children. I would like to, but it didn’t. It was rather an average moment in an average day when I made the choice that a good laugh sometimes beats even the best attempt at mediation.

I still can visualize it a decade later. As we rode along in the aging Buick down the gravel road toward town, I began to hear the familiar sounds associated with a growing disagreement.

I struggled to understand how the two preschoolers in the backseat could be arguing. I had strategically ensured that they were entertained, with the windows down and the country music up, and each had their own dog sitting beside them, giving them the complete attention only a dog can bestow on a toddler.

I did not have to ponder the source of conflict long because my son piped up with the announcement that it was not fair that his nectarine only had one sticker on it and his sister’s nectarine had two stickers.

If you are a parent, an aunt or uncle, an older sibling or anyone at one time charged with caring for youngsters, you have been here. Your details were different, but you, too, faced the reality that a guidebook on conflict resolution did not seem to be handy and you simply would need to learn as you went along.

Although I have had a dozen years of near-daily experience since this fateful day, I never have been particularly fond of mediation. The professionals would say this is because I am a fixer. I like to swoop in, analyze the situation, add whatever assumptions are time-expedient and quickly identify a solution to suggest or demand.

This worked when the children were at an age that parental authority was more literal, and it gained a renewed level of effectiveness since I discovered simply pointing at a child’s cellphone brings with it an amazing level of compliance from that child. However, the fixer technique is growing less viable as my children enter conflict resolution by introducing more complex ideas gained along the way about how things should be, and particularly about what is fair.

Just in time, the Department of Defense recently treated me to the weeklong training required to become a certified mediator.

I was a bit skeptical at the onset as I wondered how one could spend an entire week learning to do something I have been doing since my second child was old enough to say “no.” Turns out, mediation is a process, one that has been adopted by many organizations, agencies and business entities as a means to simplify and facilitate conflict resolution.

For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency has an Agricultural Mediation Program. The purpose of this program is to allow agencies in individual states to help parties resolve disputes cooperatively, quickly and at low cost, when compared with alternatives, including litigation.

The key principles of the process for the mediator are neutrality, confidentiality and self-determination. Neutrality and confidentiality are straightforward in concept: Keep clear of value judgments and statements, and share with each party only what you have been authorized by the other to share.

This sounds fairly easy, but being neutral can be challenging because life experience has a way of allowing our values to creep into how we perceive a situation. It also means I have had to learn not to nod my head or provide affirming comments as parties are speaking.

Self-determination is a learned skill. As a fixer, my natural inclination is to identify a solution and convince the parties of its merit. Self-determination in mediation rather means that options to resolve conflict and their consideration, and ultimately the solution, need to come from the parties you are mediating.

The theory is that to accept the solution, people need to come up with it on their own. My experience is this process can take a grueling amount of time, with the professionals advising mediators to plan for at least four hours to mediate even a single conflict. Sometimes asking questions and encouraging the parties to review the issues, including their commonalities and differences, will help; other times, the process simply takes a lot of patience.

For the participating parties, those with the conflict, entering the process voluntarily is important. Having the authority to agree to a solution and agreeing to cooperate also are important. If these do not hold for your particular situation, you may need to seek another path to resolve your conflict.

The mediator’s role is to manage the process and keep the dialogue going. To do so, a mediator must accept that allowing parties to express their clear and, at times, unfiltered thoughts to and about one another, even if painful to watch, sometimes can be therapeutic and contribute to finding a solution. Other times, the mediator must recognize the dialogue simply is not moving forward and step in to help it do so.

A mediator sees signs that the parties are at an impasse, such as when the dialogue becomes repetitive rather than introducing new ideas or revealing thoughts or assumptions that have not been shared previously. And, professional training provides a mediator with tools to break an impasse, such as taking a break to talk to the parties individually, introducing hypotheticals or asking them to role play the other party. Experience allows mediators to learn to use these tools effectively.

Mediation is truly an art as much as a science as parties work from a point of conflict toward a solution that they own. I am looking forward to harmony in the household, but also an opportunity to exercise my skills in mediation. Knowing my children, I will not have a long wait.

NDSU Agriculture Communication - Oct. 3, 2018

Source:Cheryl Wachenheim, 701-231-7452, cheryl.wachenheim@ndsu.edu
Editor:Ellen Crawford, 701-231-5391, ellen.crawford@ndsu.edu
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