The School Mediator
Peer Mediation Insights From the Desk of Richard Cohen Vol. VII, 5/08

in this issue

Letting Things Be Wrong

Response to "The Best Parents in Human History"

Help the Kenyan People

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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Welcome to the May/June issue of The School Mediator. This is the last issue for the 2007/2008 school year.

This issue explores the importance of accepting when parties cannot or will not resolve their conflicts.

Please send along your thoughts and experiences. It is always great to hear from you.

Thanks for your ongoing support, and have a wonderful Summer,

Richard Cohen
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates

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  • Letting Things Be Wrong

  • I just read The Open Road, a book about the Dalai Lama written by his old friend, the peripatetic writer Pico Iyer.

    The Dalai Lama is a remarkable man. Of special relevance to us is his extraordinary commitment to non-violence, particularly in regard to the conflict between China and his native Tibet.

    China has systematically worked to extinguish Tibetan culture. They have murdered over a million Tibetans, laid waste to all but 13 of the 6,254 monasteries in Tibet, and forced the Dalai Lama to live in exile for almost 40 years.

    Despite this, the Dalai Lama refuses to demonize the Chinese. He works tirelessly for Tibetan freedom, but he is unwilling to take action that, however emotionally or politically satisfying in the short term, would be counterproductive in the long run. He prays for his oppressors as well as for his own people.

    For now, he lets things be wrong.

    I do not have the expertise to comment on the efficacy of the Dalai Lama's approach to the Tibetan conflict. (Not surprisingly, some frustrated Tibetans find fault with it.)

    I can say, however, that the Dalai Lama's restraint is an important model for our work as mediators.

    We mediators strive to fully understand parties' conflict, to enable them to gain as much perspective on the conflict as they are willing to acquire, and if possible, to help them craft an acceptable resolution.

    But we must also find a way to live with the fact that parties might be unwilling or unable to resolve their conflict.

    In addition to helping parties make things right, we need to be able to let things be wrong.

    One of the many conundrums of mediation practice is that mediators who can let the process unfold, without attachment to whether parties reach a resolution, actually increase the chances that parties will be able to do so.

    Why is this so? My best guess is that helping parties to reveal and explore their predicament, and then tacitly accepting the situation for what it is, demonstrates an uncommon level of respect for parties.

    This creates space for what in a previous issue I called the most profound yet under-appreciated forces in human relations: people's desire to live in harmony.

    Demonstrating such non-attachment, however, is easier said than done.

    A range of factors make it difficult to refrain from "pushing" parties towards resolution. A short list includes:

    Are we worthy?
    Every person wants to feel competent, skilled and accomplished. It is normal for mediators to want parties to reach agreement in part because of what it implies about us (i.e., that we know what we are doing, that we add value, etc.). Mediators need self-confidence, as well as a balanced understanding of their own strengths and limitations, to be able to resist this often subconscious influence.

    (Note: This is a thorny issue, because mediator competence, or lack thereof, does indeed have an impact upon whether parties are able to resolve their conflicts. More on this in a future issue.)

    We are compassionate
    No healthy person wants others to suffer, and it is often safe to assume that the parties would suffer less if they could find a way to resolve their dispute. It requires (and engenders) emotional maturity to witness the stress and pain of conflict, yet not feel compelled to "make it all better."

    We want to feel good
    It feels better, on a purely physiological level, when the tension between parties has dissipated and they conclude a session with a sense of relief. Even though it might be appropriate given the circumstances, when sessions end with parties distrustful and unsatisfied, it just feels bad. And who wants to feel bad?

    Our next paycheck is at stake
    It is even more complicated for those who get paid to mediate. The individual/organization paying the bill (whether that is one of the parties or not) will usually be happier if the parties resolve the conflict. A lasting resolution is more likely to lead to future business.

    These dynamics remind us of the need to guard against the tendency to push parties to resolve their conflicts.

    Of course there is a place for encouraging parties to resolve a dispute, even strongly encouraging them. Part of the art of mediating, requiring sensitive timing and phraseology, is knowing how to encourage parties in a way that is respectful and ultimately empowering.

    It helps too to remember that there are many legitimate reasons why parties do not choose to resolve their conflicts. Perhaps the time is not right. Perhaps parties are not psychologically ready to face the feelings (shame, anger, jealousy, loss, etc.) that would enable them to move on. Perhaps, too, resolving a conflict would not be in parties' best interests: They might know from past experience that their counterpart will not follow through, or they have other interests that are best met by continuing the conflict.

    This all sounds complicated, and you might be wondering: Can young peer mediators do this? Of course. Just as they handle other aspects of mediation in age-appropriate and usually effective ways, student mediators can let their peers decide. And they learn more as they go, just like the rest of us.

    Next time you prepare yourself (or your mediators) for a case, it is certainly fitting to get ready to help parties make things right.

    But take a lesson from the Dalai Lama: Strive, also, to be willing to let things be wrong.

    Work hard, create a space for peace, and hope for the best.

    Ultimately, it is out of our hands.

    Please share your thoughts...

  • Response to "The Best Parents in Human History"

  • We received a large amount of mail in response to the last issue about parenting and conflict resolution. Thanks for sharing your insights, and sorry we couldn't print every one.

    True enough, conflict practitioners face "normal" bouts of what may be considered some very uninspired home turf parenting moments.

    However, we're lucky enough to also be familiar with the "unconditional apology" when we fail to apply our best skills. A pure, unadulterated acknowledgement that we handled something badly (really badly sometimes) puts us in the big leagues of loving parenting.

    In addition, with two of my three girls trained as peer mediators, I'm quickly warned not to pull out my little toolbox of what they view as contrived methods when relating to my own flesh-and-blood. Always being controlled can be just as unhelpful as being overtaken with bad emotions. When we're trained as mediators, sometimes we should be given the caveat: "Warning: Don't Try This at Home."

    Finding that harmonious groove of being genuinely reactive and applying our conflict resolution skills in the same breath requires a conscious and constant energy on some days, for sure. But on those days we hit it right --practically by accident--we deserve to whisper: "Huzzah for me...the mediator at home!"

    Shari Doherty
    Mid-Valley Private Mediation Center
    Rosendale, New York

    Pity I've been too caught up in the humdrum race for survival to respond to your painstaking efforts as much as I would like! Know that I try to read your newsletters and whenever I can, I borrow freely from your ideas. Thank you for staying on course.

    I'm a mother of five who had children spread out over eleven years. I therefore have children who regard their siblings as children: ages range between 22 to 10.

    I run a democracy in my house. (Because I'm a mediator/educator/lawyer/woman activist/writer, I know better than to rely on the Nigerian view that age apportions wisdom best.)

    This democracy includes arguing my way to get my point of view across, backing down when I am convinced I am wrong (and expecting others to do the same), shouting sometimes, and getting upset and refusing to talk for some time. Its only guarantee is that no one is assured of getting their way on any particular issue.

    Our strategies might not be perfect, but nobody said parenting was easy! When I started out as a parent, chastisement worked a bit. (I used to have a cane in the house as some kind of sword of Damocles, but can you believe I was accused by the eldest two of 'spoiling' their younger ones because I had stopped flogging anyone!)

    I'm glad you didn't have an answer to how best we should deal with conflict in the home. At the end of the day, love, I believe, conquers all. It is love that gives one the opportunity to explain that there is such a thing as a bitter pill!

    A parent gets better by trying. Though some only get it right by the time they become grand parents, it is rewarding when you succeed.

    Barrister Ozioma Izuora, Executive Director
    Mediators & Advocates of Peace (LAMPAIX)
    Abuja, Nigeria

    I was taken aback by your article. While I agree that looking back is often a good way to recognize the advances we have made, it doesn't work for me to make the leap to the "Best Parents in History," even if it may be so.

    Whether we study parenting or medicine or science, we can recognize that the practices of the day were based on the knowledge available at the time. While we would not likely want to perform surgery without anesthetic, or use leaches, I believe it is always possible to improve upon what we have accomplished.

    While many of us have advanced in our approach to caring for our children, many others have fallen down on the job. Juvenile crimes are up and the fastest growing population of juvenile offenders is girls age 14-18. More children are on Ritalin and other mood controlling drugs than ever before (two-year-olds are now medicated for bipolar disorder). Yes, we know a lot, but some of our practices are the kind that will inspire future parents to look back to and say: "aren't we the best parents ever!"

    So while the cobbler's kids have no shoes and the carpenter's kids have no furniture, so too the conflict practitioner's kids don't always find resolution. Yes, my kids don't wear their mittens and I find myself yelling and scolding them - but I hope I can catch myself and recognize what I am doing. It doesn't always stop me from doing it, but I get closer each time.

    We parents can learn a lot from our kids if we to allow ourselves to be open to them.

    Mitch Gordon
    Circle of Humanity
    Northborough, Massachusetts

    Perhaps someone could look specifically at "fathering." Over my lifetime I do not see a significant difference in "mothering," but I believe "fathering" has come a long way. Fathers are far more apt to be hands-on than two generations ago.

    By the way...The teenagers that you think will never succeed turn into wonderful young adults; they are not your babies anymore, but they are wonderful!

    Joan Walsh Freedman, School Psychologist M. Ed., C.A.G.S. (and two time Mom and three-time Gramma)
    Fall Brook School
    Leominster, Massachusetts

    What a wonderfully reassuring article. Thanks for sharing your experiences of being a restorative practitioner and parent. I too have been at the door telling my son to put a coat on, telling my daughter what homework to do and when, etc. and finding my kids reminding me none too gently that I am doing exactly what in my day job I teach teachers not to do. "Out of the mouth of babes" springs to mind!

    It is certainly more difficult to practice what I preach when confronted with a sulky teenager refusing to engage in a parent-child conversation (especially when it occurs after a hard day's work and I know I have a pile of washing, cooking and other stuff to do before I can even sit down).

    I hope that more times than not I manage to work as restoratively with my own children as I do with other people's children. When I don't, however, I know that I can try and repair harm caused a little while later.

    Your article reminded me that, on the whole, I think we as parents are doing a pretty good job. There is a good chance that our children will grow into empathic adults who have the skills to manage their own relationships, including the conflicts that inevitably come with them.

    Caroline Newton, Restorative Approaches Trainer (and parent!)
    London, England

    It is always with much pleasure that I read your School Mediator newsletter. I also forward it to the group of EURED (European Education as Peace Education) participants, because of the useful information.

    I want to let you know that you indeed have readers, and are not working in vain. I also want to thank you for the optimistic article about contemporary parents. We do indeed try to make the best of it and respect each child's uniqueness.

    Janne Poort-van Eeden
    Hilversum, The Netherlands

    Very thoughtful piece. The issue of wearing not wearing coats in winter drives me crazy. I tell my kids it's not cool to get pneumonia. After a battle, my son will wear a pull-over. But it's a battle!

    I'm a single dad raising four teenagers, and it's a challenge. However, I'm really trying not to yell. I've gotten better, but I still have a ways to go.

    Joe McMonagle, 8th Grade Counselor
    Burlington Township Middle School
    Burlington, New Jersey

  • Help the Kenyan People
  • Muigai Kimani, our friend from Kenya who is now living in New Zealand, wrote to remind us that in the aftermath of the post election violence, there are now 350,000 "internally displaced persons" in Kenya. Many are living in deplorable conditions in schools, police stations, churches and open fields.

    With the recent natural disasters in Burma and China, there are many worthwhile uses for our funds these days. But any help, no matter how little, would make a big difference in Kenya.

    Muigai suggests funds be sent to the Kisima Rural Foundation, one of many Kenyan grass-roots NGOs that have banded together under the Kenya Peace & Development Institute, based in New Zealand.

    Contact Person: George Ndungu Kimani
    Naivasha Field Office
    Kisima Rural Foundation
    Box 339 Naivasha
    PO Box 56709 00200

  • About Us
  • For twenty-four 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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    Post us: 134w Standish Road,
    Watertown, MA 02472 USA

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