Using Mediation to Resolve Disputes in the Community
02 May 2017
By Dr Lim Lan Yuan
The development of community mediation and neighbourhood justice centres has established deep roots in the United States since the 1970s. Those who pioneered community mediation asserted that mediation was a more effective process for resolving a wide range of conflicts than adjudication, especially if the parties had an ongoing relationship. The notion of individual and community empowerment was fundamental to the community mediation movement. They wanted to give the skills and the power to resolve disputes back to the citizens who were involved in them. By helping people transform their interpersonal relationships, they hoped to build stronger communities and more satisfying lives.
What is community mediation?
Mediation is a process in which a neutral third person attempts to help the disputants reach a mutually satisfactory solution to their problem without the element of force. It has been described as the art of changing people’s positions with the aim of acceptance of a package put together by both sides with the aid of the mediator and as formulator of the final agreement to which both sides have contributed.
Community mediation is simply a form of dispute resolution used by mediators to assist disputing parties to resolve their own community, social or family conflicts. The context of the disputes is largely neighbourhoods within the community. One or the two mediators are involved to help the disputing parties to communicate. They seek to clarify the issues in conflict, then explore all the possibilities with the parties for resolution and finally assist them in arriving at an amicable settlement without making decisions for them.
The primary characteristic of these conflicts is the basis of the relationship between the parties. These relationships are generally personal or social in nature. They are likely to develop as a result of parties being known to each other as neighbours, friends or relatives, or simply being known to each other because of some previous encounters in the community they live.
Another characteristic of community disputes is that generally the dollar value of the dispute is small. Usually no lawyers are involved. However, the dollar value of the dispute is not necessary an accurate indication of the severity or complexity of the dispute.
The major factor distinguishing community dispute resolution from other dispute resolution programmes is that volunteers play a major role in delivering services. The purpose in building a volunteer neighbourhood community mediation system is to do work at the community level. This is of particular importance in conflict reduction and resolution. A community mediation system where the functions are performed by trained volunteers can be effective in reducing conflict, lowering intra-community tensions, and building community cohesion and understanding.
Misconceptions about community mediation
There are a few misconceptions about community mediation. The two common ones are:
a) Community mediation requires less skills as it deals with mundane issues. This is far from the truth. The community conflicts may appear very mundane in nature ranging from noise pollution, water leakage or common corridor obstruction to personal ones such as verbal abuse or jealousy. Unlike commercial mediation which tends to focus on monetary compensation and the assignment of responsibilities and liabilities to the parties, the main aim in community mediation is the preservation of the relationship between the parties. Good legal skills are an asset when dealing with contractual matters and breaches in agreements in commercial mediation. In community mediation, the relationships between parties are often structured not based on legal framework but rather on the bond and ties between the parties as a result of them staying in the same community, neighbourhood or family. In community mediation, parties get very much involved in emotions and feelings, and other subjective and personal matters rather than tangible, monetary issues. These intangible matters need to be dealt with in order to resolve the conflict. Often, someone who is holding out for a monetary compensation is more satisfied with an apology than with a sum of money! The understanding of these human aspects of the conflict, particularly cross cultural or racial issues is therefore more important in contributing to the success in community mediation.
b) Community mediation is about compromise rather than collaboration. There is a tendency for a mediator acting as a neutral to suggest a compromise half-way between the parties’ offers. This is a reasonable way since it would appear fair to both parties. A number of conflicts are settled this way particularly those involving monetary compensation. However, the proposed solution for the parties needs not be a fifty-fifty compromise. What is important if the resolution is to be effective, is that all parties involved in the conflict must feel that they have received something of benefit from the process. It may not be the one they expected before the mediation, but they must have some need, value or satisfaction if they are to support whatever resolution that is eventually agreed upon. In community mediation, it is indeed a challenge to arrive at a fifty-fifty compromise when feelings and emotions are involved. Community mediators seek to work with the parties to collaborate with each other rather than just to compromise.
The community mediation movement has gone a long way to empower people to resolve their own disputes. Going forward, people in society should be educated to resolve their own disputes at the first instance without seeking outside assistance. Conflict management and mediation skills should be looked at as an important life-skill where parties in dispute can learn and utilise to resolve their problems by themselves. The widespread promotion and training of people to acquire conflict management and mediation skills is an important goal for the future. In a society which has become more diverse and varied, the better understanding of each other and the respective perspectives will help people to engage and establish relationship with one another in a more positive and constructive manner. Understanding mediation skills will provide that opportunity.
The community is the place that most affect our lives and well-being. In the earlier days, disputes and conflicts among the members of the community were settled within the community by the village elders or leaders. As time passed and with the influence of the industrialised world, the kinship gradually gave way to more contractual and less friendly relationships. In order to employ mediation to resolve conflicts and disputes among parties who are now less closely related, a more formalised approach needs to be adopted.
Community mediation reflects social and community values. Communication and conflict resolution skills can be acquired and improved through the use of mediation. The use and promotion of community mediation would help the residents develop into a more tolerant and understanding people, and hence achieve a more cohesive and harmonious society.