|Faculty Q&A with Jim Antes|
Editor’s Note: Today’s headlines remind us that lots of people choose not to get along. Routine reportage of seemingly senseless acts of destructive violence—both by individuals and groups—clearly tell a compelling part of that story. Could it get any worse? A lot worse, says University of North Dakota Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of psychology and nationally recognized mediator Jim Antes.
Without behind-the-scenes conflict resolution strategies that include mediation, considerably more groups might resort to violence to “solve” their problem, says Antes, who also researches and publishes about mediation strategies and methodologies.
Among the methods used to nonviolently solve problems between individuals or groups, a process dubbed “transformative mediation” is changing non-judicial conflict resolution in the United States and elsewhere. Antes and his colleagues at the UND-based Conflict Resolution Center are among the country’s best-known proponents of this philosophy of mediation.
In this edition of the Faculty Q&A, Antes talks with Office of University Relations writer Juan Miguel Pedraza about mediation: what it is, what it isn’t, and what role it plays in today’s globalized—but insistently diverse—society.
OUR: Let’s start with the basics: what is mediation?
Antes: Broadly speaking, mediation is an opportunity for people who are in conflict to discuss issues of concern to them with the support of a third party—the mediator—who helps in that communication. The mediator supports a conversation about the conflict.
The people involved in that conflict can become clear about what their own concerns are, and the can become aware of the concerns of the other person. In that context, people can make decisions. Sometimes, you get a “Cumbaya” effect—people in conflict have resolved all of their differences and will work well in the future. Sometimes, it doesn’t quite work out that way, but at least people can get better sense of where the other person is coming from.
Historically, we see mediation as a conflict resolution strategy evolve from the labor movement. For a long time, mediation was a key option in labor-management disputes. In fact, President Martin Van Buren in 1838 facilitated the settlement of a strike by shipyard workers—it was the first government-mediated labor settlement in the country’s history. In 1947, Congress enacted the Taft-Hartley Act and shortly thereafter authorized the independent Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which is still active today. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that mediation moved into wider use, beyond labor disputes.
OUR: What is transformative mediation?
Antes: The term we apply to the model is the transformative approach, but there’s certainly a lot more to it than the label. It’s basically about understanding what happens to people in conflict. The frame for this is that we’re not at our best when we’re in conflict. We become relatively weak, we feel disempowered, we can’t think clearly; you hear people in such situations saying “man, my mind was racing, I couldn’t think of what to say.” Second, as a self protective measure, in a conflict situation, we become self-absorbed, we’re less able to look at perspectives other than our own as normally we can; in conflict, we have a limited view of things.
So in the transformative mediation model, we have this fundamental understanding of conflict: there’s disempowerment, and there’s self absorption. It boils down to this: “I feel bad, you stink.” The transformative mediator supports interaction between the parties to move from that state, to move to a sense of greater clarity and more openness to other perspectives. So in transformative mediation, the parties go from disempowerment to greater strength, from self absorption to greater empathy or recognition of the other side.
And unlike what happens in court, the mediator doesn’t push any decisions for the parties; they make those decisions for themselves.
OUR: It sounds like this could be an ideal way to solve problems between people—maybe even between groups as large as countries—before going to court or war.
Antes: Well, mediation isn’t appropriate in every case and it’s not for every person. But it has been seen as a process that is an alternative to traditional legal means. It’s one of several processes other than the traditional court process that are sometimes called alternative dispute resolution processes. A lot of mediators also are attorneys, and some of them refer to themselves as “recovering attorneys” because these alternative processes are typically less adversarial. Sometimes, mediation is recommended by judicial system as a means to streamline the caseload or to clear the dockets for more complex cases. Certainly, the legal community is well aware about mediation.
OUR: So what is the major difference between a trial or other legal process and mediation?
Antes: Mediation is a way to address the issues differently; in a trial setting, you—usually through your attorney—give your best shot at presenting your side of the story. Your opponent in court does the same thing. However, someone else — a neutral party, usually the judge or the jury — decides the outcome for you. So, you have a strong advocate but you can’t directly affect the outcome.
Mediation is a whole other way of looking at conflict. It’s not other people who decide, it’s the participants, parties themselves who decide. Therefore it’s probably not in your best interest to be such an outspokenly strong advocate for “your side” because you’re trying to work something out with someone else who has a difference of opinion over whatever the issue is. You have the opportunity to engage in a productive conversation with the other person and to make decisions with a more complete understanding of everyone’s perspective.
For more, see www.und.edu