Power to the people.
When Avis Ridley-Thomas submitted her homegrown proposal for a dispute resolution organization in the city of Los Angeles a decade ago, those four words dominated her thinking, her goals, and her tactics. Not much has changed since then.
Today, the community-oriented group fields more than 5,000 requests for assistance a year, and boasts more than 1,000 trained neighborhood volunteers ranging in age from their mid-teens to none-of-your-business. “They just have to be intelligent,” says Ridley-Thomas regarding volunteer requirements. They also have to complete 40 hours of classroom training and 100 hours of supervised case handling before they can tackle one of the center’s many requests for assistance.
“They could be resolving disputes about goods and services purchased…neighbors who have a barking dog, fences and trees in the neighborhood, or students who are having problems with one another in school,” Ridley-Thomas says. “All of the volunteers believe that they are benefiting. They tell us it’s an exceptional experience to be involved in the community in this way.”
What methods are most useful in bringing parties to the table and facilitating a discussion and compromise?
Well, collaboration is a little different from compromise. Collaboration is really giving people the opportunity to thoroughly present their issues, and then finding a way to negotiate. Compromise is considered more like this: “Well I’ll just give up something, and try and get this over with.” Collaboration is: “I’ll work through — I’ll state all of my issues and I’ll work through this challenge of negotiating with someone who I disagreed with in the past and we’ll find a way then. I am satisfied with the result as well as the other person.”
Do you follow a strict process?
There’s no time limit. The average session takes two to three hours. This process is entirely voluntary and entirely free. We use community volunteers, we use existing public facilities. The parties simply sit down with someone who’s been trained in effective techniques, which include listening and communication skills. That’s the foundation of the process. Then they go through phases of information presentation about the dispute, when the mediator helps them understand one another’s point of view. Negotiating and writing an agreement comes next.
We call the process I.T.U.N.A.: Introduction, talking about the issues, understanding the issues, negotiating the issues and agreeing on them.
Do you have a high return rate or do people often apply what they have learned to future situations?
They do indeed. They appreciate the opportunity to sit down and talk to one another with a third party neutral. They often leave very happy that they have taken part in the process and happy that they and the person with whom they have disagreed are no longer demonizing one another but have a way to go forward. And they express a great deal of satisfaction in doing this process to resolve disputes.
How are volunteers trained to remain objective and listen to both sides of the argument?
Impartiality. We do 40 hours of classroom training and then 100 hours of supervised case handling. One of the basic parts of the process is the mediator knows themselves. If they know that something is bothering them or they feel biased, we now have about 1,200 mediators that can take over that case for them. I tell them in training, “Don’t let me be the person to point out to you that you have taken one side or the other. You know that first.” I find that they speak up quickly.
What is the biggest benefit of conducting dispute resolution in a formalized setting rather than someone’s living room?
They only come to third parties when they have reached a kind of impasse or misunderstanding. That’s the only time that third party intervention is requested or even considered beneficial. If they were able to work it out, they would have worked it out. What they like about the process is the basic ground rules: everyone agreeing not to interrupt one other, agreeing to no name calling or put downs, agreeing to do the best they can to work the problem out. We find that people will stick to the agreements that they make, and they will make every effort to work out the problem.
People tend to really dislike the court processes, even if they win in court. The process is so grueling. We find that even if there is no agreement reached in mediation, people are happy that they engaged in the process. It often opens up the possibility for resolution in ways that people had not anticipated before they engaged in it.
You mentioned that you spend a large amount of time on teaching impartiality. What else do you emphasize in the training process?
Neutrality. Framing and re-framing the issues. Getting to interests, not positions. That is, people present the positions when they initially come. “She has to cut that tree down,” might be a position. However, the interest may be that the person wants to take advantage of an ocean view. Now there are a number of ways that that can happen. We explore what it means to have a person satisfied without actually having to do what they first present as the solution to the problem.
Listening and communication skills. We ask them to define what good listening is. Think of a person who they think is an excellent listener, what are their characteristics? Some people have quite a challenge over time. They’re not used to closing their mouth and listening to what someone else says. They are accustomed to asking again, is there anything else that you want to say about that?
Visit Los Angeles City Attorney’s Dispute Resolution Program on the Web.
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