Could the use of mediation be increasing during our difficult times? The answer by my direct day-to-day experience is absolutely “yes.” Mediation has proven itself to be “better, faster and cheaper” and those marketplace qualities have come to matter more than ever.
As a bit of background, it is worth noting that, as the mediation field got seriously going in the late 70’s and early 80’s, there was some sense that mediation might be a unified field. This was based on the (perhaps accurate) assessment that a capable mediator can mediate agreement in a wide variety of areas. True or not, this is not how the “mediation industry” has evolved or is evolving. Rather, for many practical reasons, there has been and is a current “balkanization” of the mediation field into dozens of practice areas, each with its own culture, organizations, qualifications, standards, market, etc.
In fact, the mosaic of mediation that has evolved and is evolving is so broad and differentiated in its so many applications that “mediation” as a whole simply can not be managed as any single thing. Mediation is as much social movement as professional development, as much a shift in culture as a dispute resolution option. Mediation has rapidly become, with precious little fanfare, the ocean we swim in and the air we breathe. It would now be hard to imagine a world where it wasn’t.
Our growth is not based upon people wanting to engage conflict. People hate conflict. Our growth is based upon mediation, despite its flaws, being widely and consistently viewed as the best alternative process available. If people can not resolve things themselves, it simply makes sense to have a capable helper step in to assist rather than subsidizing a small war. Critical in all this is the continuing recognition of the essential voluntary, confidential and decision-making control qualities of mediation that are expected in all contexts. This is what binds us: our joint commitment to voluntary, safe and capable participant controlled decision-making.
I am rather stunned by mediation’s flexibility and adaptability. One of the reasons for this is that mediation is “scalable.” For example, we can provide 20 or 2 hours of mediation or offer some portion of it online, whereas you just don’t have that kind of flexibility with administrative and court due process hearings. Mediation’s flexibility, organically based on emerging opportunities and our ever-hungry readiness, is leading to mediation becoming the expected way we resolve disputes. Today, what raises eyebrows isn’t the provision of mediation, it is when mediation isn’t offered as an option.
Take, for example, the current foreclosure crisis. What is the governmental response? In one form or another, it is to stimulate the renegotiation of at-risk mortgages. And what is the vehicle for all of this? Is it the courts? Is it due process hearings? No, in state after state, and soon for the federal government as well, there has been a systemic reliance on mediation to get the job done. See the ongoing headlines at www.mediate.com/Today to get a sense of what I am talking about.
Mediation has also been relied upon for the processing of claims for mass disasters like hurricanes Katrina and Rita and is now standard fare in crisis planning. Why? Because mediation resolves 70-80% of situations, does this efficiently and voluntarily, more affordably and faster, and more durably than any traditional due process alternative. Publicly sanctioned mediation is the way one gets the other side to sit down to the table (and increasingly, we will see that this “table” may be our own computer desk!)
Increasingly, we will also see mediation applications, such as foreclosures and hurricane claims, will come to include “good faith” negotiating requirements, if only for financial, insurance, governmental or other institutions. As government comes to rely on mediation more and more to get overwhelming jobs done, we will need to think how we can play our valuable role without becoming a witness on the issue of good faith participation.
What is happening, especially under the current economic stress conditions, is that things are “shaking out” and our economy and society simply can not afford to process disputes in the old (inefficient) due process ways. Sure, we need due process protections in the background, but what sane person is going to refuse a capable, early opportunity to put things right, especially if they can do safely, affordably and conveniently, if not at their computer in their pajamas.
I could go on and on about the growth indicators I see, including traffic to Mediate.com (see www.mediate.como/visits) which tell me that, rather then the mediation industry suffering during these times, I am convinced THIS IS OUR TIME. (“our” being the Balkanized States of Mediation).
One point worth noting, with the Obama administration’s commitment to diplomacy and collaboration (I know some will disagree), there is a meaningfully different social, governmental and cultural context for mediation now. For me, it is the difference between night and day. I don’t want to belabor this point knowing that I offend some who disagree, but, strategically, for the mediation industry, the change in governmental context is huge.
Other “meta” changes are taking place in the way we resolve disputes. Sure there is often a good measure of face to face discussion, but not always. We are increasingly seeing the use of the internet for purpose of filing, discovery, motions, online discussion, web resource centers, ratings of mediators, certification . . . The internet offers our industry, and each of us the opportunity to assist people to be better informed, to be better in making conflict resolution choices and to more easily access mediation services.
There is, for example, a current pilot program to resolve divorce issues online in the Netherlands. AAA recently announced its “under $10,000 dispute” online dispute resolution program. E bay resolves virtually all of its disputes online. With the rise in gas prices, I am getting calls from places like North Dakota and British Columbia about online dispute resolution for programs that simply can not afford to drive to provide services. So, as our communication capacities steadily improve and costs of getting together ever elevate, it is certain that there will be increased use of the internet in dispute resolution.
The gateway for dispute resolution is already far more “Google” than “the courts”. You can quote me on that!
And with our economic pressures, at the micro practice level, we are also seeing mediators and mediation programs “wake up” and realize that they will not survive our current economic plight with “business as usual.” And so, as practitioners and organizations are now wisely retooling to better focus and, bless the lord, to elevate their web presence and internet capacities.
I daily operate at the intersection of all things mediation and all things internet. I have “my finger” (really mouse pointer) on a number of daily pulses – be that web site traffic, sales, directory utilization, phone calls, emailed articles, printed articles, comments, etc. So, what I am saying is that I really do not think it is going to be doom and gloom for the mediation industry over the next couple of years. In fact, I see the exact opposite. I am convinced that the economic pressures of these times mean that mediation’s “time has come.” Yes, we are now perhaps the Balkanized States of Mediation, but ever-expanding opportunities are waiting on every front of mediation development.
The potential for refined application of valuable mediation processes over the next years is massive. We help people get problems resolved and we are wise to be ever-ready to do that faster, better and cheaper. The word is out. A silent revolution has taken place. Policy makers don’t even think twice now in favoring, in relying upon mediation. Our culture has changed. We have changed. Our time has come.
This article originally appeared in the January 1999 issue of Consensus, a newspaper published jointly by the Consensus Building Institute and the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program.In public dispute resolution processes,...By Jennifer Thomas-Larmer