On November 11th, the Ohio Mediation Association held its first Fall half-day mediation training. The event was a success, with many OMA members from the Toledo, Cleveland, and Akron areas, along with a few of our comrades from MANO (the Mediation Association of Northeast Ohio) in attendance. Also present were a handful of diehard mediators from Columbus and Desiree Lyonette, who won the distance award by driving up from Wheeling, West Virginia.
Our speaker at this event was the nationally-renowned Zena Zumeta. Zena delivered this training as an interactive skill-building session. Participants described tough mediations and then acted them out, with Zena and other participants taking turns acting as the mediator. This format allowed Zena to step back and describe the various approaches and mediation strategies.
My favorite tool that Zena described involved analyzing the source of each disputant’s power and then addressing them in a way that would generate movement. This idea got me thinking. An effective mediator is able to bring disputants to move from their initial positions. When the dispute is not resolved by better informing the disputants of each other’s perspectives, getting people to change their mind involves an exercise of power. Every dispute is a situation in which each disputant has various powers or potential powers over the other, and at least one party is dissatisfied with the existing power dynamics. If only one party has all the power, then there is no dispute. For example, if I’m jealous of my neighbor’s new Lexus, but I can’t afford one myself, then there is no dispute. But if my neighbor runs over my foot with said Lexus, then my power is the ability to take my neighbor to court while her power is the ability to hire an attorney, pay my resulting medical bills, apologize, or let me drive the Lexus on my next date night.
So, in order to resolve the dispute, the parties mutually agree to relinquish or trade specific powers. Asking the parties about their feelings about the situation or broad ideas for resolution will not necessarily touch on the power dynamics that are at the heart of the matter. Mediators must identify the sources of power and get the parties thinking about how they can be leveraged. I like what Zena did in the role play to make this happen–she got me talking about something of which I had power/control, asked me a “what if” question to explore how I would use this power based on the potential actions of the other side, and then kept asking me for more options of my own potential actions. Once I had described a variety of ways that I could exercise power over the other disputant, she asked me which one I preferred, which options I could live with as a backup, and then got me thinking about how to offer one option while indicating a willingness to use an option that the other side would prefer less.
While mediators who emphasize the need for impartiality may be uncomfortable with addressing power dynamics between parties, it is my personal opinion that ignoring power dynamics only enables them. The problems with power imbalance in mediation is that one disputant gets a better deal based on considerations that are not the appropriate basis of a decision between conflicting perspectives (e.g., who can make the other side feel uncomfortable, intimidated, or guilty). If a mediator ignores these in the interests of impartiality, then the mediator is merely going back and forth, asking the parties to respond to each other, and possibly allowing one party to manipulate the other. The better approach is to help the parties explore their relative strengths and weaknesses, ask them for a variety of options for leveraging these issues, and then facilitate a negotiation in which both sides feel acknowledged and respected.
Overall, it was a nice training. The various mediators who were present had an opportunity to apply their preferred approach and compare it to the approaches espoused by other mediators. It was also good to get OMA out of central Ohio and reach out to our members and other mediators up north. If anyone is interested in an OMA-sponsored mediation training elsewhere in the state, mention it in the comments under this post or email firstname.lastname@example.org.