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Conflict Resolution Institute

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Internships: Jefferson County Mediations Services and Mediation USA

Any Owsiak, MA Conflict Resolution 2005

Any Owsiak, MA Conflict Resolution 2005 writes:

I had the unique experience of performing internship responsibilities for two distinct organizations: Jefferson County Mediation Services (JCMS) and Mediation, USA. JCMS provides mediation services to the residents of Jefferson County, Colorado.
It also serves as a resource for county offices that encounter cases amenable to mediation. These offices regularly refer cases to JCMS involving barking dogs, neighbor relations, code enforcement, and child custody/parenting arrangements.

Additionally, JCMS makes a team of mediators available to small claims court on each evening that the court is in session. In this triage-type setting, mediators typically experience cases involving contract disputes, employer/employee relations, and property damage.

Mediation, USA, on the other hand, is a private company
focused on providing mediation services primarily to federal agencies. As a private entity, the company can develop expertise in certain case types by narrowing its focus and concentrating its efforts on these cases. The president of Mediation, USA,
conducts the majority of mediation sessions herself, and also customizes training programs in communication, mediation, and conflict resolution for various audiences. The responsibilities of my internship experience were similar across both of these distinct organizations. In particular, I assisted both offices in tracking case data. The variables involved interpretations of success in mediation (e.g., was a memorandum of understanding completed and signed by the parties), the time invested by the organization (e.g., how many mediators worked on the case and their respective time commitments), or logistics (e.g., who was involved). In the case of JCMS, this work afforded opportunities to observe mediation sessions, which eventually transitioned into a position as a volunteer mediator. Mediation, USA, provided similar experiences. After a few months of tracking case data, I was invited to serve as a co-mediator for a federal employment discrimination case and eventually assisted in the creation and design of new mediation training materials.

Although these experiences taught me many things, there are three main lessons that hold particular value. First, there is no universal manner for tracking and analyzing cases. Different organizations capture different variables when reviewing cases, which are based on the value structure of that organization. A public entity might track signed agreements, since it must continually fight for a budget. Or two entities may track the same variable, but define it differently. Thus, difficulty arises when mediation is studied as a field, as statistics are not always comparable across organizations. This illustrates the ongoing discussion in conflict resolution literature regarding what constitutes "success" in mediation (among other topics). [See article in Dec 2005 CRI Newsletter]

Second, different situations require different approaches. This may appear to be a simplistic conclusion to reach, but it is hard to hear such an assertion in a classroom and know what it means. Mediation texts will often iterate that each case is unique, requiring the mediator to navigate the unknown and employ a variety of skills and techniques to make the process work to its fullest potential. Until one is placed in such situations, however, it is impossible to understand what choices will need to be made and when the opportune moment is in which to make them. Only participating in the mediation process can teach a mediator how to adapt the process to fit the contextual variables at hand.

Finally, conflict resolution texts and courses tend to repeatedly answer student questions with one phrase: "it depends." In the classroom, this can cause frustration. But in practice, there really is no one answer to any process question related to mediation. The context drives the process. When to intervene to reestablish behavioral guidelines, how to handle difficult people, when and how to caucus, and what questions to ask all depend on the parties involved and their disposition at any given moment. In short, it really does just "depend," and only getting beyond the class room can demonstrate what this truly means.

- By Andy Owsiak