The School Mediator
Peer Mediation Insights From the Desk of Richard Cohen Vol. VIII, 4/09

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This Must Be Difficult

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

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

This month we explore the importance of empathy in mediation.

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

Wishing you the best, wherever you are,

Richard Cohen
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates

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  • This Must Be Difficult

  • Much of mediation's power stems from this fact: Mediators make parties feel like we understand what they are going through.

    Think about it: By the time people sit down with mediators, they are typically "full" of strong and often difficult feelings. They are hurt, furious, jealous, humiliated, hopeless, afraid.

    One of the most important messages a mediator gives to parties, therefore, is simply: I feel for you.

    The best mediators empathize: They engage in a true heart-to-heart dialogue with parties, striving to understand and enter into their feelings.

    But some mediators are better at this than others.

    To illustrate, let's compare the way two sets of mediators handle the same mediation session.

    Here's the background: A high school junior, Crystal, learned that her good friend Jennifer allegedly "hooked up" with Crystal's boyfriend, Ramón. Enraged, Crystal confronted Jennifer in the school cafeteria, yelling and eventually pushing her. This landed both girls first in the dean's office, and then two days later, in a peer mediation session.

    Following a joint session during which both Crystal and Jennifer were tense and uncommunicative, the mediators decided to call for private sessions. The excerpt that follows begins 12 minutes into Crystal's private session, after she has described additional details of the conflict, and as the pace of the conversation is slowing.

    First, mediators who do not empathize well:

    Crystal: ...pause...I just can't believe she backstabbed me like that.
    Mediator: So you are surprised by how she acted?
    C: Yes...pause...I wouldn't have expected this from her.
    M: What role do you think Ramón has in all this?
    C: ...pause...I don't know. He's a guy, so he might have led her on too...
    M: Have you talked to him about the incident with Jennifer?
    C: Yes. He denies the whole thing.
    M: Would you say you had a good relationship with him?
    C: It was pretty good, I guess...
    M: So would you like to come up with an agreement with Jennifer?

    Many deficiencies stand out in this short excerpt. One example: The mediators ask primarily closed-ended questions, questions which spring from their own theories--and a seemingly premature desire to "solve the problem"--rather than follow Crystal's lead.

    Most relevant to our discussion: the mediators exhibit little empathy for Crystal. Though they briefly recognize a more superficial feeling (surprise), they do not appear to make her feel like they understand how difficult the situation is for her.

    When mediators miss the deeper feelings, they miss the person.

    Let's take another look, but this time with mediators who are better at demonstrating empathy. We pick it up at the same point as the excerpt above:

    Crystal: ....pause...I just can't believe she backstabbed me like that.
    Mediator: ...pause...Why do Jennifer's actions come as such a surprise to you?
    C: ...Because she was my girl...pause...
    M: ...What do you mean by that? What was your friendship like with Jennifer?
    C: I thought it was good. We did all kinds of things together: hang out, go to the mall. We even dress alike....people wondered whether we were sisters....pause...she was one of my best friends...long pause...
    M: ...So where does that leave you now?
    C: I don't know. I guess it's over...long pause...
    M: ...That must feel terrible. Not only does it seem like she betrayed you, but you might have lost one of your best friends in the process...
    C: ...Yea. It sucks...very long pause...
    M: are you handling this?
    C: I don't know...pause....I guess I just have to accept it. There is nothing I can do now...long pause....I don't understand why she did it, though. Did I do something to her...?
    M: ...We don't know. But that is certainly something you could ask Jennifer when we come back together.

    Many strengths here: The mediators give Crystal lots of space, in the form of pauses and silences, which appears to have enabled her to open up. Their primarily open-ended questions also follow Crystal's lead.

    Most relevant: The mediators make it clear to Crystal that they understand what it must be like to be in her shoes, at this difficult moment in her life.

    Parties benefit in many ways from mediators' empathy, including that they:

    - are more likely to trust the mediator and the process
    - are likely to share more information during mediation, thereby increasing the chances that they will benefit from their participation in it.
    - learn about their own feelings (parties are often unclear how they feel when a session begins)
    - are more likely to feel safe enough to risk attempting to understand the other party's perspective
    - are more skillful problems solvers: their feelings become additional data to consider when making decisions, and their judgment is not clouded by suppressed or unresolved emotion.

    Mediation trainees often fear that attending to parties' feelings might lead down a "non-productive" and uncomfortable road.

    Quite the contrary! Empathizing is often the quickest and most efficient way to help parties move through their feelings. As in the above example, just a few minutes can make a tremendous difference.

    Mediators' resistance to being empathetic--and their rush to problem solve--usually has more to do with their own discomfort with strong feelings, and a lack of practice.

    Demonstrating empathy certainly seems simple: When a party expresses intense emotion, mediators can just listen, ask questions, and summarize.

    But there are important nuances here, including:

    Mediators show empathy differently at different stages of the process.
    During early joint sessions, restraint is required: parties can misinterpret the deeper understanding exhibited through empathy as "agreeing with" their adversary. During private sessions--perhaps the most hospitable stage for empathy--the earlier "you are saying you felt angry when..." can safely morph into "I can see how angry this has made you. This must be difficult. How are you holding up?"

    In order to put yourself in someone else's shoes, you must understand what it feels like to be there.
    Mediators won't recognize the humiliation or loss or pride that a party exhibits unless they are sensitive to those feelings in themselves. The greater a mediator's emotional maturity, which includes openness to the range of their own emotions, the more likely they will be able to "feel for" parties.

    Mediators can get by without being very empathetic. I have observed many who do.

    But the best mediators put their hearts into their work: they empathize.

    Share your thoughts... We can all learn from your experiences.

  • About Us
  • For twenty-five 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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    Watertown, MA 02472 USA

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