Mediation programs offer several advantages to any organization. They help staff members constructively solve problems, and they allow all parties in a conflict to air their grievances safely and work collaboratively toward resolution.
When it comes to higher education institutions, mediation programs offer additional key benefits. They calm the occasional infighting present among highly educated professionals. It also models appropriate problem-solving skills for students and provides them with a quality coveted by today’s employers.
Many human beings avoid conflict whenever possible. When issues occur, they want a rapid resolution. They want to quickly move past the obstacle with a minimum of fuss. While understandable, this instinct ignores the reality that problem-solving isn’t a once-and-done matter, but rather, an ongoing process of overcoming additional hurdles.
Universities should embrace a process-oriented approach to handling any difficult matter, including interpersonal conflicts. Doing so creates an ongoing model of persistence in the face of adversity students benefit from mirroring. Indeed, process-based mediation programs could positively impact graduation rates in indirect as well as direct ways.
They improve student satisfaction with their overall experience. If a student experiences conflict with a particular instructor, this can taint their attitude toward school. Under a traditional authoritative system where the professor’s word becomes law, such students may grow discouraged, feeling powerless. Mediation programs restore their sense they can positively impact outcomes, empowering them and encouraging continued growth.
Indirectly, the process of mediation reinforces the importance of grit in achieving desired goals. Of all students who enroll in college, 40 percent do not graduate. Conflict resolution programs reinforce goal-setting behaviors, as well as help people work proactively toward resolution in spite of adversity.
Instructors at higher education institutions encounter classroom disciplinary problems less often than their peers who teach at the K-12 level. However, they must still contend with behaviors like tardiness, excessive absenteeism, electronics-use violations and lack of class participation. Penalties typically take the form of decreased or failing grades. However, such approaches intimidate struggling students and ignore the reality that outside factors sometimes impede academic progress.
For example, many instructors implement rules stating failing to engage in certain activities results in a negative participation grade. Once they apply this rule, they enforce it impartially, which students recognize as fair. What about those students who fail to engage not out of lack of desire to do well, but because external factors influence their ability to excel?
Compare this to an instructor who takes a mediation-based approach to solve such problems. They could take the student aside privately and ask them to speak freely with three conditions:
· They tell the truth: The instructor should make it clear they don’t wish to pry into the student’s personal life. They simply want to know if extrinsic factors hinder progress.
· They deserve to speak without interruption: They also need to extend this same courtesy to their instructor when it’s their turn to speak.
· They agree to work sincerely toward solving the problem. This requires a two-way commitment. For example, if a student reveals social anxiety disorder makes participating in discussions intimidating, the instructor can individualize their grading rubric to evaluate them through alternate means.
Millennials now make up the largest percentage of the workforce, and they demonstrate a strong preference for democratically run organizations over those with a more authoritative structure. Higher education institutions that hope to retain top talent should adopt mediation to encourage greater shared ownership among stakeholders.
The most transformative higher education institutions implement a more multitiered, aligned leadership structure than struggling schools. This meshes perfectly with a mediation-based approach to conflict resolution. For example, imagine the English department wants to standardize its grading rubrics so students have a greater understanding of what they need to do to score well. Two or more members disagree on what to include in this rubric.
In an authoritative model, the department chair makes the final determination. Staff members who felt their input was ignored become resistant to implementing the new rubric. They may publicly criticize it, leading to further disenchantment. Eventually, the objective behind standardization gets lost and instructors return to their prior practices. The department makes little if any progress toward its goal.
Compare this to a mediation-based process for resolving the conflict. While such a process may take considerably more time, it gives all stakeholders a sense of influence over the end product.
When everyone contributes equally to the final rubric, they take ownership of it. They willingly implement it in their classrooms, and they advocate the benefits of the new grading system. Progress occurs, and hopefully, student achievement improves. If the outcomes fail to meet expectations, they’ve already established the process for coming together to improve.
Even though the majority of college students are technically adults, they nevertheless hesitate to approach instructors at times. They particularly do so if they perceive the instructor as authoritative or even overbearing.
Mediation programs encourage open dialogue between students and staff. They teach a four-step process to problem-solving.
· They establish the parameters: When students meet with instructors, they determine what they will discuss specifically. For example, dialogue may center on how to improve a score on a particular assignment. They also establish ground rules for keeping the interaction positive and productive.
· They determine the goal: What do they hope to accomplish through their meetings? This step also involves gathering information, such as revealing disabilities like ADHD that can impede academic progress.
· They identify the problem: Each party summarizes what the other person said. This helps ensure both people feel equally heard and understood.
· They solve the problem: In this step, the parties generate options for solving the issue. The beauty of this step in the mediation process lies in its fluidity. When the people involved have multiple options to choose from, if one fails, they simply move on to the next.
Such an open communication process encourages students to reach out to their instructors often. It empowers them to take proactive steps to communicate when problems first arise. If students feel safe addressing conflict with their professors, they’re more likely to reach out for extra help when they need it.
Mediation programs help students develop soft skills valued by employers. As the majority of them seek higher education to advance their careers, universities should arm them with the skills most in demand.
Surveyed employers described wanting the following skills mediation programs to help students develop:
· Communication: Workers engage more productively when they can clearly express their thoughts to others. Mediation builds communication skills by demanding an open dialogue between parties.
· Teamwork: Teams don’t succeed on the merits of one person. The most effective teams collaborate actively with one another toward a single goal, a skill that mediation programs teach.
· Problem-solving: When problems occur in business as they inevitably do, employers want staff members who take swift action, not complain.
· Conflict resolution: Conflict resolution isn’t only the core of mediation programs — it also helps students extend this skill into the workplace. They can more effectively rally the troops and get resistant team members on board. And because they are exposed to professional mediation resources, these programs can also encourage students to pursue similar career paths involving conflict resolution or counseling.
Finally, mediation programs encourage self-reflection and awareness among staff and students alike. For example, self-awareness helps educators check inherent biases they may have, such as when it comes to dealing with students with certain behavioral issues. When an instructor recognizes they don’t fully understand the impact major depressive disorder has on academic progress, they can take action to further their understanding of the disease. This helps them relate with greater empathy to students struggling to make it to class despite battling depression.
Self-awareness helps staff and students alike control the spoken and unspoken messages they convey to others. For example, an instructor who frowns and glances at her watch during a student presentation sends the unconscious message she’s bored and would rather be elsewhere. This discourages the presenter if they notice and decrease their level of engagement. By building self-awareness, instructors and students alike can learn to control such subconscious behaviors and modify their actions.
Given the multiple benefits mediation programs offer, why haven’t all higher education institutions implemented them?
One problem arises with funding. Establishing such programs take money. Many institutions currently spend a significant portion of their budget on administrative overhead. Therefore, implementing such programs requires a shift of funds away from this, something higher-level officials resist.
Additionally, mediation programs take time. Because they are process-oriented and represent the interests of multiple parties, achieving resolution takes longer than the authoritative model. Universities face deadlines in applying for grants and credentialing, and time constraints can demand rapid action.
Regardless of the difficulties inherent in implementing campus-wide mediation programs, higher education institutions should adopt them. Such programs improve engagement among students and staff alike. They also teach valuable soft skills that benefit students long after graduation.
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