Highlights from Cardozo’s Melnick Symposium on ‘The Death and Resurrection of Dialogue’

By Ellen Waldman    

Each year, the Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution, from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at New York’s Yeshiva University,  enlightens the local mediation community with its annual Jed D. Melnick Symposium.

This year’s symposium was titled, “The Death and Resurrection of Dialogue,” covering the media, politics, communities, racial divides, and in mediation itself. (The symposium agenda, from March 11, is at the link.)

The timely topics ranged from  the impact of various media on political discourse, Ohio State’s Divided Community Project and efforts to stimulate productive community dialogue, the ascendance of remote practice, the disappearance of the joint session in mediation,  and  finally, mediation’s role in addressing the inequities of structural racism.

This blog post focuses on this last, most-challenging topic, and the panelists’ efforts to address what may be mediation’s unwitting contribution to continued racial imbalance and oppression.

The panel was introduced by Bobby Codjoe, Cardozo’s Director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and moderated by Prof. Maurice Robinson, an adjunct faculty member in Cardozo’s Kukin Program for Dispute Resolution. The speakers included Prof. Ellen E. Deason, emeritus at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law in Columbus, Ohio, Prof. Isabelle R. Gunning at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, and Prof. Sharon B. Press, Director of the Dispute Resolution Institute at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in Saint Paul, Minn. 

A central question the panel posed was whether a mediator charged with maintaining impartiality and neutrality can be an anti-racist. To understand this question, it is necessary to analyze the distinction between being a non-racist and being an anti-racist, a distinction that Prof. Robinson helped the audience understand.

Being a non-racist means refraining from personally inflicting harm or behaving in negatively biased way toward BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) individuals or groups. But non-racism entails a passive response to BIPOC’s generational pain and trauma, and the structures of oppression that maintain and reinforce them.

By contrast, being an anti-racist means taking any effort or action designed in direct opposition to racism, bias, oppression, marginalization and brutalization of any group of POC. It requires acknowledging that racism is a real and present day system. It interrogates the racialized frameworks people have grown up with which asserts the superiority of White people and the inferiority of BIPOC, and maintains caste-based hierarchies through a web of legal rules, policies and cultural practices.

To be an anti-racist, according to the program panel, is to recognize that the heart of racism is the denial of this system. To be an anti-racist is to work to recognize, identify, and take affirmative actions toward  changing this system. 

Prof. Gunning, when considering how mediator neutrality meshes with the imperative of an anti-racist to affirmatively “call out” racist structures and systems began by asserting that neutrality was an inherently problematic concept. Mediator obeisance to the supposed dictates of neutrality encourages White mediators to stay silent in the face of injustice and risks thwarting  the self-determination of BIPOC in the process. Gunning suggested that neutrality, for many mediators, serves as a proxy for trust and offered that mediators talk instead about the values they seek to enact in the process: equality, dignity and respect.

Prof. Deason began her remarks by delineating two specific instances where a White mediator is most at risk of complicity with structural racism. The first is when the mediator remains blind to racial stereotypes and unaware of the mediator’s own unconscious bias. 

The White mediator, in saying, “I don’t see color,” may, in fact, be simply affirming her or his own White reality as the status quo,  thereby denying the reality or experience of the BIPOC  parties in the mediation room.  A mediator’s determination to adhere to a neutral stance may affect how the mediator chooses to respond to the dynamic between the parties.

Deason revealed some skepticism that mediators can ever be truly neutral and noted that research reveals that mediators engage in selective facilitation, elevating the stories they find most compelling and silencing those stories that are less resonant to them. Both Profs. Deason and Press speculated that for White mediators, that story often will be the White story, whether consciously or not. 

Prof. Press noted that as mediation becomes ever more institutionalized within a court system that prioritizes efficiency and settlement over root-cause problem-solving, the challenges increase. When the goal is to relieve dockets, not surface underlying needs and redress wrongs, the risks that mediation will simply buttress existing racial inequities is significant.

Press and Deason noted that the standard mediator exhortation that parties treat each other with respect and avoid interruptions smacks of “tone policing,” just as the insistence that parties look forward, not back, can rob traditionally disenfranchised groups of the moral context and righteous indignation that undergirds their claims.

The panelists agreed that mediation needed to reconnect with its original emphasis on voice, both in the  community and court settings.  Additionally, they noted that the work of examining embedded whiteness and promoting racial healing is not the task of mediators alone; rather, dispute system designers and stakeholders in related fields, such as conciliators and group facilitators, must also take up the cudgel of self-reflection and modification.

In fact, restorative justice practitioners have started that work. See, e.g., Edward C. Valandra & Waŋbli Wapȟáha Hokšíla, Eds., Colorizing Restorative Justice: Voicing Our Realities (Living Justice Press 2020) (in which 18 authors who are restorative justice practitioners and scholars explore the racism and colonization within the field of restorative justice/restorative practices), and Fania E. Davis, The Little Book of Race and Restorative Justice: Black Lives, Healing, and US Social Transformation (Justice and Peacebuilding) (Good Books (2019).

It is true: the hour was filled with more questions than answers. But the very fact of the conversation reveals that the work  has, indeed,  begun.

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The author is Vice President, Advocacy & Educational Outreach at CPR.  Her bio on CPR’s website can be found here.

Highlights from the June Session of the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation ‘Mediating Disputes’ Training

By Mylene Chan

The Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation conducted a June 7-11 program called Mediating Disputes. This is a recurring course that the program has offered to executives for many years.

About 50 professionals from around the world, including judges, lawyers, business executives, and nonprofit managers attended the sessions taught by Robert Mnookin, Samuel Williston Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, Gary Friedman, of Mill Valley, Calif.’s Mediation Law Offices, and Sausalito, Calif., mediator Dana Curtis.

Mediating Disputes provides training in the non-caucus “Mediation through Understanding” model of mediation that Mnookin, Friedman, and, along with Friedman, co-founder of the Center for Understanding in Conflict, Jack Himmelstein, of New Rochelle, N.Y., have developed and promoted as teachers and practitioners for more than 20 years at the Center of Mediation in Law and the Harvard Negotiation Research Project.

The Understanding Model is a transparent approach in which conflicts are resolved through deepened understanding. This approach eschews the risks of coercion and manipulation potentially present in some other mediation models. 

A distinguishing feature is that all parties work together in a mediation with everyone present. There are no separate meetings and no shuttle diplomacy where the mediator alone has information from both sides. This arrangement eliminates the opportunity for mediators to manipulate information asymmetry. Apart from resolving that ethical dilemma, working together fosters more extensive mutual understanding between the disputants.

The model starts from the foundational belief that disputants should not caucus when conflicts arise and that, in fact, embracing conflicts is often the best opportunity to create value. By staying together throughout the mediation, even when emotions are high, the disputants are forced to vet their underlying interests, allowing the true issues to surface and bring about more nuanced appreciation of each party’s perspective and interest.

Another distinctive characteristic of the Understanding Model is the emphasis on placing ultimate responsibility for whether and how the conflict is resolved on the disputants, not the mediator. It is the parties, rather than the professionals, who ultimately have the best knowledge of what underlies their disputes. Although the intensity of the conflict can obscure their views, the parties hold the key to reaching a resolution of their dispute that best serves them.  When the parties take the lead in resolving the conflict, coercion and manipulation can be eliminated from a mediation, according to the course. 

Mnookin, Friedman, and Curtis presented together during the five-day course. The faculty members engaged the participants in two full mediation stimulations–a personal dispute and a complex business dispute–using the Understanding Model. Each day was dedicated to one of the model’s phases, including contracting, defining the problem and dealing with conflict, understanding law and interests, generating options, and exploring interests and packages.

The faculty demonstrated how each phase should be conducted.  They sent the participants to breakout rooms to roleplay, with guidance and critique, followed by debriefing.  After the day concluded, the three faculty members held office hours for follow-up questions.

The attendees participated in about four hours of simulated mediations using the Understanding Model so they could understand its impact and effect cognitively and viscerally.  

On the final day, the faculty showed a mediation training video produced by the International Institute for Conflict Prevention & Resolution, the host of CPR Speaks, illustrating the caucus model to compare and contrast the different styles. See “Resolution Through Mediation: Solving a Complex International Business Problem” (updated version on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTbj-eHwX-w and available from CPR at https://bit.ly/3cFEkW5).

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Reflecting on the processes reviewed in the Program on Negotiation training sessions, Prof. Robert Mnookin noted, “Many lawyer-mediators primarily rely on separate meetings or caucusing for understandable reasons:

(1) it is more comfortable for them because it avoids their having to deal with heated conflict between the parties;

(2) they believe they will be told things in secret that will allow them to create alternatives that facilitate resolution. Besides, many lawyers (who typically select the mediator) prefer it because it gives them more client control.”

“But in my view,” Mnookin continued, “there is far too much reliance on caucusing. The Understanding Model puts the focus on the parties themselves and provides a much greater opportunity for them to take responsibility for helping shape a resolution that may provide a foundation for repairing a damaged relationship.”

Faculty member and Understanding Model developer Gary Friedman noted in an email,  “The model is premised on the idea that the power of understanding is an underutilized power as opposed to the power of coercion, and has the ability to help people find agreements that are more responsive to what’s personally important to them. Understanding in the form of agreements about how the mediation proceeds as well as the ultimate result give the parties control not just over the outcome, but provides them with participation in designing the process as well.”

Faculty member Dana Curtis, like Robert Mnookin, also had misgivings about relying on caucuses in mediation. She stated, “Unfortunately, the caucus model has eclipsed the Understanding Model, especially in recent years. I believe this has occurred for two reasons. Lawyers prize their role as legal adversaries and protectors at the expense of their role as collaborators and problem-solvers. And mediators, especially retired judges and lawyers brought up on settlement conferences, have not acquired the skills and understandings to enable them to offer parties and lawyers an alternative that can lead to a satisfying and meaningful process and, hopefully, resolution, rather than simply a ‘deal.’”

Concluded Curtis: “We would like to change that!”

Details of the Understanding Model can be found at the links above, and in Beyond Winning: Negotiating to Create Value in Deals and Disputes by Robert H. Mnookin, with Scott R. Peppet and Andrew S. Tulumello (Harvard University/Belknap Press 2004).  A mediation training video illustrating the Understanding Model titled Saving the Last Dance: Mediation Through Understanding, with Robert Mnookin and Jack Himmelstein as narrators and Gary Friedman as mediator, is available at the Harvard Program on Negotiation website at https://bit.ly/35hbdEE.  

And for more on recent views of mediation joint sessions and caucusing, see “Decline of Dialogue? Galton, Love & Weiss on Joint Sessions, Caucuses, and the State of Mediation,” CPR Speaks (June 2) (available at https://bit.ly/3daRBGe).

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The author, an LLM candidate, at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, is a 2021 CPR Summer Intern.

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Love’s New Mediation Data: Whither the Joint Session?

By Temitope Akande

New York Law School’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Skills Program kicked off its first 2021 round of biweekly Wednesday lunch conversations yesterday featuring mediator Lela Porter Love, a law professor and director of the Kukin Program for Conflict Resolution at New York’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

Love opened by emphatically noting that dialogue is currently dying or impoverished, even on the political scene. Mediation, she said, “is the last bastion,” with mediators trained to promote dialogue. But even in mediation, there is “less and less mandate for mediators to bring parties together into joint sessions.”

Her discussion was mostly based on a 2019 survey of practicing mediators in a professional group, the International Academy of Mediators, to determine the use of joint and caucus sessions. Presenting a PowerPoint, “The Disappearing Joint Session,” based on 129 responses and anecdotal discussions, Love said that the data reflects the title: There is a lessening frequency of the use of joint sessions and more reliance on mediators conducting caucuses with individual parties.

Prof. Love moved to a 2017 survey by the American Bar Association Dispute Resolution Section Task Force on the Relation of Mediator Actions to Mediation Outcomes also on the use of caucus during mediation. The results, she said, were counterintuitive: caucusing had an increased settlement effect in labor-management disputes, but no effect, according to her presentation slide, “in other types of disputes regardless of [the] purpose of caucus (i.e., whether to establish trust or discuss settlement proposals).”

She said that the use of caucus has shown that parties are more likely to file an enforcement action based on their settlement—which indicates that increased caucusing didn’t reduce acrimony. As a result, caucus sessions, while they may increase labor-management case settlement, may have potential for negative effects on the parties’ perceptions and relationships.

Love discussed the caucusing results in a broad Maryland state judiciary ADR evaluation report. Based on the evaluation of caucus sessions, the greater the percentage of time participants spent in caucus, the less likely the parties were satisfied with the outcome, and the less likely the participants report that the issues “were resolved with a fair and implementable outcome.”

“On balance,” said Love, “you don’t see this real, ‘Wow, now I understand why there is this great move to caucusing.’”

The Maryland study showed that when the mediators controlled the sessions, limiting the issues instead of presenting a broad range, parties showed an increase in a desire to better understand the other party. The long-term aftereffects results show that the greater percentage of time participants spent in caucus, the more likely participants will return to court for an enforcement action after mediation, reflecting a lack of durability of those mediation results.

Love further discussed the values that influence mediation style and reasons why mediators use caucus sessions instead of joint sessions, returning to the IAM study. First, mediators who do not use joint sessions primarily do not do so because attorneys do not want joint sessions.

The second reason they lean toward caucus and away from joint sessions is that parties tend to decline joint sessions because they feel more comfortable participating in the mediation process by sharing their stories in caucus sessions with the mediator, rather than facing their adversary. “People in conflict are really angry at each other and they don’t want to see each other,” explained Love.

Love further noted that mediators were mostly trained to use joint sessions, though different schools of mediation also favored caucuses. A more important factor in constructing and conducting mediation sessions is that a significant purpose is to get people together to heal relationships—as opposed to the “war” of adjudication–which orients toward using joint sessions.

Prof. Love concluded by stressing that listening helps settle cases, and it is important in helping people tell their stories. The mediators who seek to identify the parties’ interests perhaps are doing only one aspect of the process, noted NYLS ADR Skills Program Director and moderator F. Peter Phillips, who added that mediation might be better handled if the emphasis was on all parties listening and working to understand one another. Love concurred, and, noting that mediators are witnesses to the participants’ stories, suggested that neutrals provide “respectful-person listening” that enhances the process.

Love’s Jan. 13 NYLS Conversations in Conflict Resolution session is available on YouTube at https://bit.ly/3nOluyK.

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The author, who received a Master of Laws in Alternative Dispute Resolution last May at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law in Los Angeles, is volunteering with the CPR Institute through Spring 2021.

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