The School Mediator
Peer Mediation Insights From the Desk of Richard Cohen Vol. VI, 1/07

in this issue

Side by Side, not Face-to-Face

Responses to "Do Parties Sing the Mediator's Song?"

About Us

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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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Happy New Year and welcome to the January issue of The School Mediator.

This first issue of 2007 compares two of the most common peer mediation seating arrangements, and finds one superior.

As always, please send along your thoughts and experiences. Hearing from you is the best part of this endeavor!

Wishing you the best, wherever you are,

Richard Cohen
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates

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  • Side by Side, not Face-to-Face

  • As anyone who has been in my office can attest, interior decorating is not my strength.

    While not oblivious to my surroundings — I appreciate a space that is comfortable and tastefully appointed as much as anyone — I tend to be so focused at work that I just don't pay attention to the pictures on the wall (or lack thereof).

    When it comes to mediating, however, we ignore our work space at our peril. If the room doesn't feel private enough, if it is too cramped, or if it is uninviting, it can hinder parties' ability to address their conflict.

    Of the many interior design issues to consider, perhaps most significant is the surprisingly nuanced matter of how we seat the parties.

    Though many possible seating arrangements are used, two are most common in school-based, peer mediation practice.

    The first is "face-to-face," in which parties face each other across a table, with mediators also sitting opposite one another (and between the parties).

    In the second, "side-by-side" approach, parties sit on the same side of a table facing the mediators, who sit next to one another on the opposite side.

    Although there is something intuitive about the "face-to-face" option--if mediation is about parties talking to each other, shouldn't they face each other?--I find this arrangement to be inferior.

    Why? Because at least here in North America, seating people across from one another tends to create an adversarial atmosphere, giving parties the sense that "the problem" is the person sitting on the other side of the table.

    As Fischer and Ury discuss in Getting to Yes, when negotiating, it is usually helpful to "separate the people from the problem:" that is, to understand one's conflict as something that one shares with the other party, and that can best be resolved not by attacking each other, but by collaboratively "attacking the problem."

    The side-by side seating approach comes closer to embodying Fisher and Ury's maxim. Its implicit message to parties is "through this process, and with the mediators' help, you can resolve your conflict together."

    Furthermore, it is usually anxiety-producing just to be in the same room together; to expect parties to face one another at the outset only increases their discomfort.

    There are other advantages to the side-by-side approach, including that it:

    1. Focuses parties on the mediators at an opportune time: when the former are most anxious, and when mediators need to review the process and win parties' trust.

    2. Enables mediators to simultaneously attend to all of the parties' non-verbal cues while actively listening to just one of them. (In the face-to-face approach, only one party at a time is in a mediator's field of vision.)

    3. Makes it easier for mediators to communicate with one another.

    4. Is flexible: parties can turn to face each other from the start, or whenever they are ready.

    Of course, if tension is high and/or mediators are concerned that physical violence might erupt, parties can be seated further apart or even across the table from one another.

    Consider cultural norms as well when seating parties. As Michelle LeBaron writes, "There are large differences in spatial preferences according to [culture], gender, age, generation, socioeconomic class, and context." John Paul Lederach notably pointed out years ago that talk of bringing people to the mediation "table" doesn't work for the many places in the world where people do not customarily sit around tables.

    The next time you and your students are preparing a room for mediation, consider the impact that seating can have upon the process. If it makes sense, try seating parties side by side rather than face-to-face.

    Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go hang some curtains.

    How do you seat parties, and why? Please share your thoughts and experiences...

    Thanks to Miguel for the graphics.

  • Responses to "Do Parties Sing the Mediator's Song?"

  • Below are a few of the responses we received to last month's newsletter about the significant persuasive influence mediators have upon parties...

    Your six-year-old sounds like my five-year-old; she "just knows" everything, never learned it from anywhere!

    I agree: We influence one another all the time. Denying that would be like refusing to believe that advertising actually influences people: Would individuals and corporations spend billions of dollars on it every year if it didn't work?

    Perhaps it's a hidden assumption that we make as mediators, but we have a fundamental belief that mediation works precisely because it promotes dialogue, mutual respect, and understanding. That in itself is at least a "philosophical" perspective, and parties' successful participation in mediation likely necessitates some level of acceptance of that perspective.

    On a personal level, the care we as mediators show parties, and the confidence we display in the process, inevitably has a charismatic effect on the people involved. It draws them into the process, which is, in effect, our product.

    As we provide a safe, neutral setting (neutral with respect to the parties) and facilitate participants' engagement in respectful dialogue, we influence parties' sense of what is possible, e.g. - they let go of the wish to force the other side to accept unfavorable terms.

    Nothing is morally or philosophically neutral, including mediation.

    Ben Chokshi-Fox, MSW
    The Learning Community Charter School
    Central Falls, Rhode Island

    Of course we influence people's behavior--that is, in a way, the point. The subtle modeling we do of deep listening and respect is part of the magic of mediation. As Etienne Wenger says about mentoring: "come and stand with me, and, for a short time, you can experience what you are not yet."

    At the moment of mediation, parties usually have not able to be deep listeners. They can follow the tune of respect and compassion that we "sing" through our presence and our behavior.

    In mediation training I often present the idea that mediators are like magnets. Working together with a partner, modeling how to be respectful to one another (one reason why I think it's important to have 2 mediators), creates a pull for the parties to also act respectfully. My theory is that respect is contagious (although sometimes you need multiple exposures!).

    Ora Grodsky
    Just Works Consulting
    Watertown, Massachusetts

    Thanks for your wonderful newsletter this issue. You introduce what I think of as vast, fertile, but largely unexplored territory - the subtlety of our sense perception (what I call "sensory intelligence").

    A party to a mediation doesn't just mimic the mediator. As you point out, the mediator's response to a party expressing a desire to "run out the door" might make or break that particular mediation. The mediator's response is not just body language, or even visible, but it occurs, and it certainly affects the situation.

    Yvonne Zimet
    Vermont Mediators' Association
    Randolph, Vermont

  • 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.

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