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Community Mediators Bring Dialogue to Group Conflict

Community mediators are unsung heroes, volunteers who work every day with people in a range of intractable disagreements—from partners approaching divorce proceedings to landlord and tenant disputes to business deals gone sour. At these moments of high conflict, mediators step in to help all parties find an alternative path forward.

At the Community Dispute Settlement Center, the oldest community mediation center in Massachusetts, the mediators dedicate their time, energy, and gifts to facilitate challenging conversations among fellow community members. CDSC started to notice an uptick in the number of group (or multi-party) conflicts seeking help.

These group facilitations presented unique challenges, and CDSC Executive Director Gail Packer decided her mediators needed special training to navigate these challenges.

Distinguishing Dialogue from Mediation

Essential Partners (then the Public Conversations Project) collaborated with CDSC leadership to design a customized training that would prepare mediators to facilitate multi-party conflicts with greater confidence.

“We sent out an email about the training, and we booked two workshops right away,” said Packer. This training provided a greater understanding of the difference between dialogue and mediation and greater confidence navigating heated emotions and multiple stakeholders.

The first training was such a success that EP and CDSC partnered for a follow-up workshop the following month.

“All the sparks and light-bulbs!” said one participant, adding that the new skills shifted her approach: “I think I will use it to try to take a step back during facilitations and set up an environment where people can solve their own problems.”

Magic

“What happened…was magic,” said a workshop participant.

One mediation team applied the skills they learned right away, facilitating a conversation with a group that had been in deep conflict for a number of years. One participant had anxiety about even showing up. With the group facilitation skills she had learned with EP, the mediator reported that the participants left the room hugging.

CDSC continues to do its important work with a new skill-set for greater impact, and EP has developed the training for community mediators into a program that will spread across the state.