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Expanded Use of Institutional Mediation

This essay focuses on understanding the mechanics of the process, functional points, administrative issues, and conclusions.

I. Introduction.

Institutional Mediation is designed to work with recognized groups within an institution. It is most often seen in modern hospital or educational settings. The process is most often noticed or reported when a large issue is resolved in such an institution.

However, the same techniques and mediators can be used to help resolve one-on-one problems and small group issues. As with the larger issues, staff mediators help defuse tension, focus on solutions that last, aid in avoiding the legal system, and bring parties towards acceptance of issues they have failed to appreciate.

II. How the process begins.

Either the mediator finds a problem or someone recognizes a problem and asks the mediator to help the people involved find a solution. Sometimes the problem is pretty obvious, as when the institution gets a letter from a lawyer or a labor strike begins. At the same time, the problem may not be so obvious.

Once a problem is recognized, the mediator meets with the people involved, individually and in confidence, to find out how they perceive the problem and what the options are. Usually the options include:

1. Do nothing and ignore the issue. Some problems can not be solved within reasonable limits.

2. Accept that nothing will be done.

3. Wait. Many problems cease to be important as time passes.

4. Look for minor adjustments that will cause the problem to no longer be important.

5. Look for significant, but painless, changes that will solve the problem's significant issues.

6. Accept significant, painful changes.

7. Face the problem head on devote significant resources to solving the problem.

8. Look for an alternative solution.

III. Taking the next step.

Mediators do not "solve" problems. Instead, mediators act much like oil in an engine to help the work of solving the problem be done much more efficiently.

In helping resolve a conflict a mediator helps the people involved to take stock, appreciate what the issues are, understand ways of seeing the problem, and then to communicate effectively.

In small scale conflicts in an institution, this usually means that the mediator helps the parties take a realistic look at the reality (or lack thereof) of the problem -- generally by talking it out with them several times in private. Then, the mediator helps them look at the "standard" options and gives them encouragement to look for alternatives (the entire focus of the "win-win" negotiation concept).

At some point, with permission from all the persons concerned, the mediator will share each person's suggestions and proposed solutions and help each group involved analyze and consider what the others have to say until an agreed resolution (including a deadlock) is reached.

Once the problem is recognized, the appropriate administrative steps are followed and the mediator helps the parties make a record of their solution -- if appropriate. If no solution is worked out the people then interact with the standard administrative problem solving methods. The mediator also remains available for questions, follow-up, and further dispute resolution help as the solution is worked out.

IV. Functional Points, Examples and Comments.

V. Administrative Issues

There are several issues that should be resolved before a mediation program is put into place. These administrative decisions should be made before the program is initiated, not after a problem arises.

1. Are there limits on what a mediator keeps confidential? If the answer is yes, then everyone should be warned, in advance, of what information will not be held confidentially. Making the decision "afterwards" is an invitation to disaster.

2. Who does the mediator report to and who is responsible for the mediator (or mediation staff)? Someone needs to decide if the person(s) hired are doing their job as they should and other issues, such as scheduling, priorities, and conflicts.

3. How to let the mediator know (a) that they are needed in an issue or (b) that the parties would prefer not to have the mediator involved in an issue. (How do you obtain or avoid the mediator's attention).

4. Whether or not to share the mediator with other institutions or departments. Some institutions are not large enough to justify a full or a part-time mediator. This sharing decision includes deciding on the primary responsibilities of any hybrid employee when the mediator is also involved in risk management, human relations or staff counseling (three areas that often can provide mediation services).

VI. Closing Comments

Institutional mediators have a role beyond crisis intervention after things have gotten out of hand. Much like a computer network manager or similar professional, a mediator is often working best when drawing the least attention.

If a mediator has a clearly defined role, follows clear procedures and methods, keeps confidences and remains neutral, and is incorporated into the defined institutional organization, then the mediator's scope and usefulness can be expanded far beyond large scale institutional conflicts and be extended into improving the quality of the normal function of the institution.

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Copyright 2000 Stephen R. Marsh

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