Is it human nature to resort to force to get our way with one another? Is that why we go to war instead of the negotiating table? Try this experiment with your friends and family. Put a quarter on your palm and close your hand around it. Your hand will look like a fist. Ask your friends to try to get the quarter. Watch what they do. I'll tell you what most people do. They try to pry your fist open. Very few will think of any other method to get that quarter.
How about just asking someone to open their hand or to give you the quarter, maybe even loan you the quarter? Could you offer them a reward for giving you the quarter? What about reminding them they owe you a quarter? How about offering to tell them a joke or wash their windshield for a quarter? You would be surprised how often a simple request can be granted. That is the way it is with mediation. Many people assume they need to go to court when they cannot get someone to pay them back, finish a job or take back a defective product. We are often quick to assume that if we have tried to get someone to do something and that did not work, the other person must be unreasonable and will have to be forced to do what we believe they should do.
Consider some other possibilities for a minute. Could miscommunication have happened? Maybe the other person had a different understanding about what was supposed to occur. Has someone been offended? Do feelings need to be dealt with before money matters can be resolved? Has there been a job loss or family emergency that is interfering with the other person's ability to meet their obligations?
Many problems can be resolved without going to court by using mediation instead. People are often more satisfied with the result of a mediation in which they helped create the resolution than in leaving their fate up to a judge who has to follow the guidelines of the legal system.
There are a number of things you can do in business to avoid the types of problems that end up in court. You can have clearly printed return policies on your receipts and posted on the wall. You can make sure you use contracts that spell out everyone's responsibilities, expected results and deadlines. You can put arbitration or mediation clauses in your contracts obligating people to try those options before going to court when there is a dispute. You can have clear and written policies and procedures for your employees. You can say what you mean and mean what you say so people can count on your word. You can apologize when you are wrong and do what you can to make it right. After all that, if you still have a problem, you can hire a neutral party to sit down with you and resolve the problem.
Mediation is not about just looking for a compromise. It is not about cutting the last orange in the refrigerator in half because two kids are fighting over it. It is more about finding out that one child wants to eat the fruit and the other needs the rind to put in a cake recipe. The solution is clear when you find that out, isn't it? When you take the time to find out what each person really needs, you can find the win-win solution.
How can you tell what situations are not appropriate for mediation? In cases where there is physical or emotional abuse, for example, it can be hard for someone to negotiate with someone who abuses them. Another indicator that mediation is probably not appropriate is when one person wants to punish the other person. Mediation does not punish.
The best indicator that the conflict is ripe for mediation is when the parties all want to resolve the matter. They don't have to be on the same page or agree with one another to start the process. They just need to want it done. A skilled mediator can help people with that attitude find a way to wrap it up.
Laurelyn Irving of Bakersfield is executive director of Mediation Affiliates. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words. The Californian reserves the right to edit all submissions for length and clarity.