Say, for example, that you and I are next-door neighbors.
You land a job.
I get a dog.
You work nights.
I work days.
You sleep with your window open. The window faces my deck.
I put my dog on the deck when I go to work so she won’t chew up my sofa (again).
You’re a light sleeper.
My dog barks.
What happens next? Maybe we exchange angry words. Maybe you put a boombox in your window and blast Metallica every night. Maybe I call the police.
Between the two of us, we’re losing sleep, and we’re simmering in resentment. Blood pressures rise; stress piles up.
Now imagine that someone in the neighborhood hears about our conflict. She tells each of us about mediation. In mediation, a neutral third party sets the stage for us to talk to each other in a civil manner, explain what’s bugging us and why, and possibly work out our own win-win solution.
Barbara Davis, an Asheville attorney now specializing in mediation and collaborative law, founded the nonprofit Mediation Center in 1984 and served as its first executive director. With its main office in Asheville, the Mediation Center provides Buncombe, Henderson, Transylvania and Polk county residents with a variety of mediation services. Community mediation is free; family mediation services are priced on a sliding scale.
• You call the Mediation Center, explain the situation and request a mediation session.
• The Mediation Center calls me, inviting me to a two-hour mediation session with you.
We arrive on the scheduled day and time. Two seasoned volunteer mediators, perhaps Cheryl Johnson and Todd Lester, welcome us. The four of us move to a private room and take seats around the table. After they explain the ground rules for the session — including speaking respectfully — the co-mediators invite us each to describe our take on the conflict.
I hear you say: “After months of being unemployed, I finally landed this job working third shift. I’m testing electrical circuits. Any slip I make could cause an explosion. I have to stay sharp.”
You hear me say: “After months of searching through shelters, I finally found my dog. How could anyone have abandoned this sweet girl? I’ve rescued her and now — my husband died last year — she is rescuing me.”
Laura Jeffords, the Mediation Center’s executive director, says: “The three values we lean on as mediators are nonjudgment, neutrality and self-determination. Self-determination is the underpinning of mediation. The mediators are there to provide a space for the clients to decide what they want to do.”
Accordingly, Johnson and Lester ask us clarifying questions. They acknowledge the impact the situation has had on each of our lives. They invite us to brainstorm solutions, and they record whatever resolution we make for ourselves.
You breathe a sigh of relief.
My head doesn’t hurt for the first time in weeks.
Conflict is by definition nerve-wracking, gut-wrenching, stressful. As a way to resolve disputes, mediation can reduce the stress associated with conflict.
Surveying people who’ve participated in mediation, following up three months after their session, the Mediation Center finds that close to 90 percent consider mediation to be a helpful way to handle a difficult situation. Nearly 75 percent report that since mediation they experience less stress about the situation.
Supplementing the survey data, respondents have added their own comments. For example:
Mediation relieved my stress about the situation because I was able to say what I wanted to say in a safe and calm environment.
I was really mad before, but after mediation I was able to let the issue go.
Davis has observed the health effects of reducing stress as she’s mediated many kinds of conflicts, including those that arise in the workplace. In such cases, employees’ headaches, elevated blood pressure and ulcers become both personal and collective issues, increasing absenteeism and decreasing productivity in the workforce.
She’s seen time and again how mediation changes the feeling in the room. Family members disputing the division of an estate, for example, may arrive with faces marked by anxiety, fear, worry and anger. Davis observes their faces relaxing as mediation proceeds. The parties may at first turn away from each other as they sit with arms and legs crossed. As mediation proceeds, they turn toward each other, uncrossing their arms and legs.
When and where can mediation be helpful? Davis says, “There’s no shortage of conflict.”
Mediators in private practice and community-based organizations such as the Mediation Center can address a wide range of disputes — involving neighbors, co-workers, business partners, landlords and tenants, homeowners associations, retailers and customers, housemates, divorcing spouses arranging child custody and division of property. The Better Business Bureau offers mediation to customers who have a complaint against a firm that’s a bureau member.
While some cases are self-referred, others are court-referred. The district court refers some civil and criminal cases — such as simple assault and communicating threats — to community mediation.
Police officers are another source of referrals. Says Jeffords: “A lot of the time people are calling the police about conflicts that may or may not be legal issues. And in some cases the police are limited in their ability to respond — either because they don’t have two hours to spend resolving the conflict or because the issue’s not something in the realm of the work that police do.”
If a conflict is brewing, notes Jeffords, sooner is better for getting to mediation. And mediation can be much more desirable than going to court. “The court system,” she explains, “is not a rapid process. There’s a lot of waiting. During that time, the conflict can escalate, causing more stress for people, decreasing the quality of life in their neighborhood and within their families. People don’t have to wait for the judge or district attorney to send them to mediation. They can call the Mediation Center right when the conflict starts; they can call us at any point in the process.”
In addition to providing community and family mediation services in-house, the Mediation Center offers mediation skills training in workshops open to the public and in workshops tailored to the needs of specific organizations and businesses. Reflective listening and nonjudgmental communication are among the mediation skills that men and women can put to good use in a variety of settings, says Jeffords.
Applying their skills, mediators Johnson and Lester have helped us find some common ground. They might have asked, for example: “What was the nature of your relationship before this happened?”
You say, “We were neighbors. She brought me tomatoes from her garden.”
I say, “We were neighborly. He loaned me his ladder when I needed to clean the gutters.”
The mediators might have followed up by asking us each: “How important is it to you to have some neighborliness in the future?”
Among the many and complex types of disputes that Davis has mediated, she’s seen her share of barking dog cases. And she’s seen neighbors reach resolution.
“They sit down at the table together and share their concerns, but they also share a little bit more about themselves. So they can see each other — not just as someone who lets their dog bark at all hours or someone who complains a lot — but as humans.”
Cheryl Johnson puts it this way: “Mediation allows people to acknowledge each other’s humanity.”
Lisa Sarasohn serves as a volunteer mediator at the Mediation Center and the Better Business Bureau.
Basic mediation skills training
The Mediation Center’s next three-session course begins Friday, July 17. More info: mediatewnc.org/training-2
The Mediation Center
Buncombe County: 251-6089
Henderson and Polk counties: 697-7055
Transylvania County: 877-559-5136
Better Business Bureau
Mediation and Collaborative Law