Mediation Barriers

Why some disputes defy resolution

My friend, Bill Ryan, has been a professional mediator for many years. Trained and ordained as a Presbyterian pastor, Bill chose mediation for the majority of his life’s avocation. He received training in Northern Ireland, among other places. The historic violence in Northern Ireland ( provided an extreme case study of how mediation could succeed, or fail.

The conflict began in the late 1960s and is usually deemed to have ended with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

I attend a monthly men’s breakfast with Bill, a group of 4-8 men, all over 55 and under 85 — we call ourselves “Old Codgers Advancing Civilization.” Many times we discuss religious and political subjects, bringing in current news reports, opinion editorials, movies, TV series, novels, non-fiction, etc. Bill invariably brings a perspective of a mediator, as we try to unravel the divisions in American public opinion.

It is comforting to hear his stories of successful mediation sessions he has personally been involved with, but I am most interested in case studies when mediation has failed. What are some of the “red flags” that are common ahead of time, when both parties agree to mediation, but despite the best intentions, the mediators become thwarted and the mediation fails?

Bill and I had coffee together one-on-one a few days ago, and I was hoping he would give me a list of 5 or 10 red flags that I could apply to a current/on-going situation at my church. Unfortunately, Bill does not make lists like these, and does not see the world in a binary or even multi-sided way. For him, everything is a continuum, and so many shades of gray you can’t really count them. And Mediation is not like surgery, where there is a “best practices” method and everything else is quackery. For Bill, Mediation is an art form, and practitioners follow various and contradictory methods.

So, I am left to trust the collective wisdom of our church leaders in resolving our current conflict, and will restrain myself from offering my 2¢. When in doubt, muddling through is a good general strategy for a lot of problems.

~ ~ ~

Current update (a few weeks later): our church had its Annual Meeting last Sunday (26 January). There were a few oblique references to this past year which involved a Grievance being filed and a member being banned from our building. In deference to confidentiality, no names were mentioned. Then at the end of the meeting, after a long discussion and 3 amendments to the proposed budget, a member stood up and said out loud the name of the member who was banned. Everyone fell silent, and then the staff person whom the Grievance was filed against stood up and made a few comments. Next the chair of the Deacons stood up and explained some of the basis for the painful decision to ban the member who filed the Grievance. A few more people stood up and offered their opinions. Wow, the “log jam” caused, in part, by giving so much weight to confidentiality, now is being challenged by the competing value of transparency. We shall see how this works out, whether there is more harm from transparency, partial or full, or the opportunity for more healing . . . .

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