The School Mediator
Peer Mediation Insights From the Desk of Richard Cohen Vol. VI, 11/06

in this issue

Do Parties Sing the Mediator's Song?

Response to "Persuasive Words for Effective Intakes"

About Us

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The School Mediator's Field Guide:
Prejudice, Sexual Harassment, Large Groups and Other Daily Challenges
by Richard Cohen
more info

Students Resolving Conflict:
Peer Mediation in Schools

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

This newsletter explores the fact that, whether we intend to or not, mediators have a significant persuasive impact upon parties.

After you finish reading, crack your knuckles and type a response! I haven't heard from enough of you this year.

Wishing you the best, wherever you are,

Richard Cohen
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates

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  • Do Parties Sing the Mediator's Song?

  • This morning, as is my habit, I sang a little melody of my own creation while I got ready for work.

    A few minutes later I noticed that Ruby, my very musical six-year-old, was passionately singing a variation on the same theme.

    When I joined her in singing, Ruby told me to stop (as is her habit). She said that she wanted to sing her song by herself.

    Apparently, Ruby wasn't aware that I had influenced her to sing that particular tune.

    Over the past few months, I have come to appreciate that we do this all the time: Mediators influence parties, profoundly and often without intention, to make specific choices or behave in particular ways.

    Not long ago, I would have found this notion heretical.

    I understood the role of the mediator to be more limited: that is, to help parties understand themselves and if they chose, each other, better; and to assist parties in deciding, "on their own," how they wanted to move forward.

    If anything, I prided myself on my ability to refrain from persuading.

    Yet influence and persuasion have been on my mind a great deal this Fall. The first two issues of this year's newsletters, for instance, have focused on intake interviews, an exercise in persuasion if ever there was one.

    More recently, I picked up Malcolm Gladwell's popular book The Tipping Point. In his effort to explore why some people are unusually persuasive, Gladwell describes research that demonstrates the subtle nature of influence.

    In one study, conducted just prior to the 1984 US presidential election, subjects were asked to rate the emotional content of television news anchors' facial expressions. Research subjects watched 2.5 second videotaped segments of the anchors introducing stories about the two presidential candidates. All reference to the candidates were deleted, the sound was off, and the subjects had no knowledge of what the anchors were discussing.

    The subjects' ratings revealed a marked bias on the part of one of the three anchors (Peter Jennings of ABC News) for one of the candidates (Ronald Reagan). But astonishingly, researchers went on to find that television viewers who had watched Peter Jennings were more likely to vote for Reagan than voters who watched the other two anchors. Accounting for other factors (that Reagan supporters might have chosen to watch Jennings because of his bias, for instance), the research suggested that this barely perceptible aspect of Jennings' behavior influenced the way people voted.

    Gladwell cites this and other studies to stress that when it comes to influence and persuasion, not only can very "little" things make a big difference, but the people affected are often unaware that they are being influenced.

    Furthermore, when we communicate, it is likely impossible to not influence one another.

    Consider Boston College professor William Condon's close study of videotaped conversations. Viewing the conversations in 1/24 of a second intervals revealed what he called a "synchrony" between a listener's body and a speaker's voice.

    Unconsciously, the muscles in a listener's head, hands, shoulders and arms respond and become synchronized with the speaker's words. When I say something, within milliseconds, your body reacts.

    Furthermore, volume, pitch, the number of speech sounds per second, even the length of pauses between utterances becomes harmonized.

    Interpersonal communication, it turns out, is a far more intricate process than many of us think. It is like a dance, with each party unconsciously and instantly responding to the other's lead.

    Is there any doubt that this form of persuasion is going on during mediation?

    · When mediators make their opening remarks in a calm and thoughtful tone, they influence parties to be similarly calm and measured.

    · When mediators listen empathetically and without judgment to one party's story, they influence other parties to do the same.

    · When a party expresses his desire to "run out the door rather than talk about this stupid sh#&!," the displeasure that registers upon even the most skilled mediator's face will surely influence that party's decision to stay or leave.

    We have no choice but to embrace the fact: Everyone--mediators included--has undeniable and likely inescapable persuasive powers.

    Mediators certainly don't force parties to make choices; we even strive to withhold our opinions.

    But in significant ways, parties sing our song.

    Please share your thoughts and experiences...

  • Response to "Persuasive Words for Effective Intakes"

  • One interesting response to last month's newsletter...

    What we do to convince students to take part in mediation:

    My belief is that if you force people into mediation it will kill the program. Last year at our school, 48% of all mediations were referred by students. This indicates to me that they trust the program.

    Not necessarily cheap. Find a trainer who has done school mediations and maybe other kinds of mediation. Actual experience adds to the quality vs. someone who has SOME workshops on mediation. There are FEW quality trainers.

    Let students/disputants know that they get to come up with the solution vs. being TOLD the solution by an administrator or other authority.

    Thanks for the newsletter and your efforts,

    Jim Gabbard
    Reagan High School
    San Antonio, Texas

  • About Us
  • For twenty-two 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.

    Call us: 617-926-0994
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    Watertown, MA 02472 USA

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