Do mediators come in flavors? Rutgers University psychology professor Kenneth Kressel thinks so, and has set about to find out which flavor will most satisfy each type of individual dispute. Typically mediators are hired blindly by parties envisioning some nice, bland, slightly balding sage who will enter the room and warmly weave a resolution. Kressel warns that this cookie-cutter image is seldom what appears.
As the cost of in-court justice soars, an increasing percentage of individuals and businesses are turning to professional mediators to settle their conflicts. As both the need and the business booms, the roles of mediators and the applications of mediation have broadened. For those in the field, and those seeking its services, the New Jersey Association of Professional Mediators is holding its 13th annual conference on Saturday, November 4, at 8:15 a.m. at the Doubletree Hotel in Somerset. Cost: $195. Visit www.njapm.org.
Kessel’s 11:40 talk, “What Mediators Think and Experience in the Process of Mediation,” reveals the results of his rather fascinating experiment.
This day-long conference also provides a series of panels, workshops, and featured speakers including a keynote address by Nancy Kline, president of Time to Think, a coaching company in Oviendo, Florida, who discusses interactive role playing models. Robert Fall, judge in the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, speaks to privacy and confidentiality issues, and attorney Anthony Limitone of Morristown-based Limitone Hillenbrand unravels the complexities of insurance disputes.
Kressel has been a mediator for more than 30 years. A native New Yorker, Kressel attended Queens College, graduating in l964 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He continued in this discipline, earning a Ph.D. from Columbia University, after which he joined the staff of Bellevue Hospital in its family therapy clinic.
In l974 Kressel joined Rutgers University as a professor of psychology. Throughout that time, he has made an ongoing study of both conflict and effective mediation styles. His own extensive mediation experience has included businesses, partner conflict, and academics.
“Researcher disputes tend to be among the most difficult, with constant issues of credit and direction of experimentation,” says Kressel. “It’s not easy to get 50 scientists all marching in unison.”
The experiment. To determine what were the styles of mediation, and which worked, Kessel’s group set up what he termed a plain vanilla conflict. Two graduate student women were hired to act as college roommates. The two had started off the semester as friends, but now stood at swords’ points.
On the surface the girls’ frequent arguments involved the messiness of the room, loud talking and music playing, and leaving food all over. But there were latent issue. The undercurrent included a schedule difference, with one arriving back in the room at 7 p.m. and being all unwound by 9 p.m., just when the other girl arrived home.
Also, neither girl had ever discussed the style of living she desired. Was the room a home for guests or just a place to flop?
Then there was that time when one girl spied her roommate in the student union with a friend and was never invited to join them. Finally, the semester’s work load had increased greatly for both roommates, stressing them to a frazzle.
Kressel had 22 professional mediators step in, and for one half hour each did their best to forge a solution. After his turn, each mediator would examine his session on video tape and record comments. Then the two “roommates” were asked to rate which ones they felt were most effective.
The results confirmed Kessel’s belief that mediators do come in flavors. Among his 22 mediator participants, he defined four broadly overlapping categories of resolution approach. Each had its own style and effectiveness.
The facilitators. These mediators were probably the closest to the public image of a kindly, wise sage. Their approach was to develop a dialogue between the parties and work toward some win-win situation. In the course of the talk, they injected they own energetic optimism and tossed out possible ideas for the parties to chew on.
The evaluators. The five mediators in this category tended to be among the eldest participants. By in large, these individuals attempted to point out which aspects of behavior in each girl contributed to tension and arguments. They examined conversations and mentioned flaws, along with possible improvements.
The diagnosticians. More than others, this group hunted for the latent causes of the argument and attempted to hold them up to light. Their goal was to show the total situation to the warring parties and let them work out the solution with all the evidence before them.
The dialoguers. The four mediators in this category, were the only ones following a prescribed formula, historically named the transformative mediative style. These mediators saw their role not so much as to find and plug in a solution, as to develop and keep going a continuing conversation.
The theory is that an initial solution will come from this conversation and future communications, kept ongoing, will forestall future problems. Interestingly, this group was the most self-critical, particularly when they strayed from their trained style.
In the end the two graduate students playing the roommates favored the diagnosticians first, with the facilitators a close second. The girls found themselves drawn toward mediators who were, in their words, “more warm, optimistic, and caring.”
However, the girls’ goals do not suit everyone. If you are the one party in the dispute who feels he has a real edge in hard justifiable fact, you may seek out an evaluator, rather than a compromising facilitator. As Kressel noted, “When you hire a mediator, you can choose from a broad field. Considering what’s at stake, it’s worth finding out whom you are selecting.”