Teaching the Art of Mediation

Teaching the Art of Mediation

From negotiating divorce to resolving roommate disputes, alternative conflict resolution is finding its way into the classroom
Teaching the Art of Mediation

Mediation – for divorce, labor negotiations, business disputes, or even disagreements between roommates – has gained widespread acceptance since the 1970s.

Divorce can be messy. It can be gut wrenching and exhausting, not to mention expensive. But a more amicable way of handling divorce is gaining traction, and it’s a method that is making its way into the classrooms at Rutgers: Mediation. 

“It’s gradually growing in popularity, simply because people now have heard of it and know that it’s not a form of marital therapy and it’s not meditation,” said Robert Karlin, an associate professor of psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers.

Mediation is when two parties in dispute turn to a mutually acceptable third-party to help them find a solution -- and about 70 percent of mediation interventions end with a positive result. It is a practice being used in many arenas, from government to business to divorce, as individuals and businesses seek to avoid the delays, publicity, and high costs inherent in litigation.

To work in this burgeoning field, the requirements vary from completing training courses to earning a graduate degree in behavioral or social science. For instance, the New Jersey Association of Professional Mediators offers 40-hour divorce mediation courses, 24-hour civil mediation courses and advanced seminars for both civil and divorce mediators.

Mediation has become a burgeoning field, as individuals and businesses seek to avoid the delays, publicity, and high costs inherent in litigation. About 70 percent of mediation interventions are successful.

“There are an increasing number of programs that offer some kind of certificate or even a master's degree in conflict management, of which mediation training is the most central piece,” said Kenneth Kressel, director of the graduate program in psychology at Rutgers-Newark.

Karlin, who became interested in mediation after his own divorce about 15 years ago, covers divorce mediation in his abnormal psychology course as an example of what psychology can contribute to the legal process.

There are about 35,000 divorces each year in New Jersey, Karlin said. That’s tens of thousands of divorces that Karlin says could be handled in a better way.

“It’s something I want to make sure my students know about before they leave the classroom,” Karlin said. “Some of them and some of their friends will get divorced.”

Karlin, whose private practice work once a week sometimes includes divorce mediation, says it can ease both the financial and emotional pain typically involved in divorce proceedings.

For instance, Karlin recently mediated for a couple who filed for divorce after 25 years of marriage when the husband discovered Internet pornography and told his wife he wanted an open marriage – something she wanted nothing to do with.

The couple had little income, few assets, and credit card debt, Karlin said. They did, however, have enough money for three or four mediation sessions (at $300 each) to divide assets and come up with a mutually agreeable parenting plan.

“Mediation lets people find co-operative solutions that work for them and their children despite their anger,” Karlin said. “That makes the horrors of divorce less horrible.”

Mediation is a practice that dates back to the 1920s and 1930s with the development of labor mediation. During the 1970s, with the rise of the women’s movement, Vietnam protests, and the dramatic increase in the divorce rate, people began to talk about using mediation outside of labor, said Kressel, who worked for three years with mediators at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland and authored the book The Process of Divorce: Helping Couples Negotiate Settlements.

At Rutgers, Kressel teaches an undergraduate course on theories of conflict that includes a section on mediation and says the mediation process is similar regardless of the setting. Whether brought into a divorce or a business organization, the mediator is a third party with no decision-making ability.

One development that has added to mediation’s more widespread acceptance is its adoption by the U.S. Postal Service as a means to resolve disputes between workers and management. Also, in the mid- 1990s, Congress mandated that mediation be used in all federal agencies, including the military, Kressel said.

Kressel recently finished a study on mediation at Rutgers that he has been presenting at professional conferences. The study examines various mediation styles.

In Kressel’s study, professional mediators watch two students act out a roommate conflict and are then videotaped trying to help resolve the dispute. The scenario involves one roommate complaining the other is too noisy, while the other argues back that she is too messy. The pair had been longtime friends, but with the stress of the semester and fears about upcoming graduate school they became alienated from one another.

What Kressel learned in examining the ways different mediators resolved this dispute was that mediator approaches to the situation varied widely, unlike the situation in other professions where you might expect well-trained people to approach the problem in a highly similar way (different dentists filling a cavity, for example).

“The principal finding was that there was no single way of handling it,” Kressel said, even when dealing with a conflict as simple as two roommates who can’t get along.  Some of the mediators focused entirely on helping the roommates reach an agreement, while others were more focused on helping them explore their relationship and why they stopped getting along.