The School Mediator
Peer Mediation Insights From the Desk of Richard Cohen Vol. III, 11/03

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Mediating Spirit

About SMA

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The School Mediator's Field Guide:
Prejudice, Sexual Harassment, Large Groups and Other Daily Challenges
by Richard Cohen
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Students Resolving Conflict:
Peer Mediation in Schools

by Richard Cohen
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Welcome to the November issue of The School Mediator.

In this issue, inspired by the Harvard Negotiation Insight Initiative, I explore why I see mediation as a spiritual practice. As always, please send along your reactions and thoughts.

Wishing you the best, wherever you are,

Richard Cohen
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates

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Correction: Francine Rondina, one of the coordinators featured in last month's issue, neglected to mention that her talented colleague, Yael Hurwitz-Lange, acts as co-coordinator of the Lowell High School SCORE peer mediation program one day each week. Apologies to Yael. Let's hope she gets a free lunch out of the deal.

Mediating Spirit

I was pleased to attend the inaugural presentation of the Harvard Negotiation Insight Initiative (HNII) last month.

HNII is a project of Harvard Law School's Program on Negotiation, the people responsible for Getting To Yes and other groundbreaking works on conflict resolution, negotiation and mediation.

HNII's mission, under the stewardship of the wonderful Erica Fox, is to "engage the cutting edge conversation between the fields of negotiation and conflict management on the one hand, and those of mindfulness and the great wisdom traditions on the other." Put simply, HNII wants to get spirituality and conflict management talking.

At the kick-off event, renowned leaders Bill Ury and Marc Gafni discussed what their respective fields had to learn from each another. Their conversation was erudite, funny, and most of all, inspiring.

Attending this event clarified the degree to which working as a mediator is an extension of my own spiritual life. As someone who has never felt comfortable with organized religion, mediation is one "practice" through which I apply my deepest understanding of the world.

I'll try to explain. Just as there are principles that help us understand the way the physical world works-principles like gravity and the laws of thermodynamics-I believe there are equally useful "laws" that govern human relations and human longings.

And like the physical scientist in his or her laboratory, I observe and study these more spiritual laws in my own "laboratory:" mediation sessions.

I recently came across one such law expressed succinctly in a sacred Buddhist scripture called the Dhammapada:

Hatred never ceases by hatred;
But by love alone is healed.
This is an ancient and eternal law.

There are likely many such laws or principles. One which particularly interests me could be expressed as follows:

All people instinctively and profoundly desire to live in peace.

This desire or force urges us toward balance with our fellow human beings. It exists within each person and yet is greater than any individual. Its source is at the confluence of self-interest and "other's" interests-it is fundamentally better for all of us to live together in harmony. And to me, this force is as real as the chair I am sitting on.

Of course, we need look no further than today's headlines to know that there has to be more to the story than this.

For starters, people instinctively and profoundly want to satisfy other, more basic needs as well. As Maslow articulated, people want to feel safe and secure, to feel understood, to feel loved, to feel useful. And humans are quick to forgo interpersonal harmony when doing so seems necessary to meet these primary needs.

Many additional factors serve to inhibit our desire for harmony. A short list includes:

* Common childrearing practices which leave many with deep (and often unconscious) feelings of despair and anger.

* Each individual's unrelenting focus on their own personal needs.

* The intense challenge of perceiving reality accurately (e.g.: did she just look at me funny?).

* The seemingly inverse relationship between age and one's ability to imagine solutions to a problem (present the same dilemma to separate groups of 8 year olds and 40 year olds, and the former will generate 5 times as many potential solutions as the latter).

It is any wonder that the impulse toward interpersonal harmony is often buried or overwhelmed?

But overwhelmed or not, this impulse always exists within and between people.

As a mediator, I serve as a midwife for this particular desire. I watch for it, create space for it, and provide opportunities for people in conflict to act upon it if they choose.

For just as plants are instinctively drawn to sunlight, I know that once people find a way to meet their basic needs, they similarly will be drawn to resolve their conflicts and live in harmony.

I wouldn't say that mediating is how I pray.

But for me, tending this process is a humbling and eminently spiritual experience.

Do you see a spiritual component to your mediation work? How would you describe it? Please share your thoughts...

(Thanks to Bob David for reviewing a draft of this issue.)

Read a previous issue of The School Mediator that deals with a related theme.

More information about the Harvard Negotiation Insight (HNII).

About SMA

For almost twenty years, School Mediation Associates has been devoted to the application and promotion of mediation in schools. SMA's mission is to transform schools into safer, more caring, and more effective institutions. Our books and training programs have been utilized by tens of thousands of people around the world.

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