Mediation is an often-used approach by Resident Advisors, especially in resolving roommate conflicts. It can be a satisfying and fulfilling way to reach resolution on some very sticky matters. It can help the individuals involved become better communicators and be more prepared to handle conflict in the future. It can also help restore a healthy community.
Technically, mediation is defined as a process in which individuals seek to talk through their differences with the help of a neutral third party and reach a mutually-agreed upon resolution. Mediation can be superior to other conflict resolution methods because the individuals, or disputants, create their own solutions and consequently have more investment in the resolution. A true mediation allows each side to share their perspective, listen to the other perspective, engage in dialogue, respect the rights and thoughts of others, and brainstorm possible solutions before arriving at a resolution. Mediation is a healthy way to share concerns and helps people learn how to resolve conflict in a positive manner.
Having a deeper understanding of mediation as a process can increase the chances that everyone will be pleased with the resolution. If you’re not properly prepared, you can do more damage than you think. The others involved may not only be dissatisfied with the process, but they may not seek outside help with disputes in the future. The more often you mediate, the better you’ll be as a mediator. Remember about the importance of training, and if you are unsure of your skills in this area, ask your supervisor for support, assistance, and training.
The following information should help you in your role as mediator:
Set ground rules
And once you set them, make sure that everyone sticks to them. Common ground rules include not interrupting, not engaging in name-calling, listening well, being courteous, and maintaining privacy at the conclusion of the mediation session. As the mediator, it is your job to call people on their behavior when they break a rule. And you must do so in a non-judgmental manner so you can continue to be perceived as neutral and not taking one side over the other.
Trust the mediation process
Mediation as a process can be extraordinarily helpful, but it must be adhered to and trusted in order to work properly. Your role is, in part, to be a good role model and to help move the disputants along from one part of the process to the next, continually moving toward a resolution. While doing so, you should be engaging in reflective listening, and restating and reframing concerns and issues that arise. It is your job to moderate the language used. For example, if a disputant says “She never turns her alarm clock off; that’s disrespectful to me,” you could restate that by saying “So what you’re saying is you are concerned because her alarm clock rings, and you don’t feel respected because of that.”
Understand the limits of mediation
Mediation can be most helpful in many roommate or community disputes. There are, however, a number of circumstances in which mediation is not the proper solution. In instances where violence has occurred, or may occur, mediation is inappropriate because either the threatening atmosphere places one of the disputants at a disadvantage, or a disputant enters the mediation with motives that are incompatible with the process. For the same reasons, sexual assault, dating violence or stalking are also poor choices for mediation. Lastly, disputes that involve individuals with a wide disparity in power (e.g. dean of a department and a student) can be problematic and are not advisable.
Some professional mediators would say that a true mediator shouldn’t know any of the parties involved in a mediation session. Others would say that as long as you can be neutral, and are perceived to be neutral, you can operate as a mediator. It helps to note any relationship that you have with the parties involved. For example, it’s all right to say “Even though Joe was my resident last year and I’ve known him longer, I believe I can be a neutral mediator in this process. Are you both okay with that?” Of course the best course of action would be to have another RA mediate a dispute between your residents. You could return the favor when other RA’s have disputes within their community. This insures neutrality, both in real and perceived terms.
Take appropriate time
Your residents have 45 minutes between classes and they want you to do the mediation in that time? Look for another opportunity to meet with them. One of the biggest mistakes in mediation is not allowing enough time for the process to take place. All parties (including you) need to have two hours, at minimum, to get things going. And everyone should understand that you may not get finished in that time; you may need to schedule another time (or times) to keep the process going. Time is a limited resource, especially for college students, but it is one of the key ingredients for a successful mediation.
While it may seem that all the issues are on the table, there may be more lurking unseen to your eye. If either or both disputants seem hesitant or can’t seem to move forward, there may be more going on than you are aware of. If you try to move along too quickly, issues that need attention can be left out and consequently come back to haunt you, and the disputants, later. Make certain through restating and reframing concerns and issues that everything is out in the open before moving on. And remember that just because you feel like you’re ready for the next step doesn’t mean it’s time to take that step. Everyone involved must be ready to do so or mediation doesn’t work.
Do not offer solutions
Many people attracted to the RA position are natural helpers, and many RA’s reflexively offer ideas, suggestions or solutions in everyday life. But offering solutions to problems is not part of the mediation process. Technically speaking, if the neutral party comes up with the solution, that’s called arbitration. Another key ingredient in mediation is to make certain the parties involved are arriving at their own decisions and solutions. You can ask them prompt questions to get this part of the process moving (e.g. “Are there any other ideas that you have about solving this issue?”), but be sure not to lead, or mislead them. As a staff person, you will be a trusted individual and the participants might agree with your suggested solution – which might work for you, but you are not one of the individuals who will be living with the outcome.
Get the agreement in writing
Once the disputants have arrived at a resolution, it is imperative to get the agreement in writing. But before that, be certain that all the bases are covered regarding details and feasibility. Play devil’s advocate and attempt to find problems in the resolution. Ask if everything seems realistic. Ask what will happen if an agreed-upon term is not met, or an obligation goes unfulfilled. Once all of the details have been settled, write down the agreement. Make certain that each disputant has things to do in the agreement; it sends a bad message if three-quarters of the items have one disputant’s name at the beginning (e.g. “Joe agrees to…”). Each disputant should have a copy to take with them and refer to as necessary.
It is a good idea to check back with the disputants in a week or so to ensure that the mediated solution is being followed and working. If they have moved away from the agreed upon course of action, you may need to help the disputants to recommit to their initial agreement, or you may use the current situation to do a secondary mediation and which will allow them to outline additional solutions.
With some formal mediation training and practice, and these tips in mind, you can be well on your way to helping your residents resolve their conflicts in a healthy and positive fashion.
Submitted by Michael Sledge, University Residences Judicial Officer, Western Washington University