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Transforming Chicago: The Purpose of Partnering

Twenty years ago in Chicago, I sat at the manicurist on the day before my wedding, fingers splayed. I saw no reason why I, the groom, should not have attractive nails, too. Never having had a manicure before, I thought the cutting and pain was simply the price of beautiful nails. No pain, no gain, right? Enough pain, though, and I began to suspect the manicurist’s competence. Then hearing her say “Oh my!” only confirmed my suspicion. The next day I stood at the altar in a black tux, showing white surgical tape at my finger tips. And with my wedding vows, I promised myself to trust only competent professionals from that day forward. Competence matters!

Later, when I became manager of the REDRESS® program in Chicago, keeping this promise had important implications. Incompetent mediators do not encourage the conditions for meaningful conversations; meaningful, that is, in the parties’ eyes. Whatever else we want to say about mediation, we all agree that the parties have to talk. And in the REDRESS® program, which expects mediations consistent with the transformative framework, the quality of the parties’ conversation is of paramount concern. The more clearly and confidently someone can talk about what really matters to her, the more likely she is to listen to the other person’s side of things. That’s human nature.

As it turned out, keeping my promise was easy. The mediator panel for the Chicago REDRESS® program listed some of the best practitioners in the city: disciplined, skilful, intelligent, thoughtful, some with as much as 20 years in the field. It was—and remains—a pleasure to observe them because it is always insightful to discuss what they choose to do in a session and what they choose not to do.

However, when I began conducting formative assessments on REDRESS® mediators in 2004, the post-observation conversation often broke down around the transformative model. It wasn’t that intelligent, thoughtful practitioners had nothing to say: they did! But when they talked about transformative mediation, they talked from outside the model looking in. Talking with them about transformative mediation reminded me of something my sister-in-law once said. When she started teaching in the Dominican Republic a decade ago, she spoke in Spanish and thought in English. She admitted later “you don’t really know what you’re saying when you have to translate from English all the time. Sure, you can know approximately what you’re saying, and sometimes it doesn’t make any difference. But you can’t really understand one language by thinking in another.”

One of the dangers of thinking in one language while speaking another is that good thoughts can get lost in translation. When REDRESS® mediators translate transactional concepts into “transformative” words, the conversation can get uncomfortable. It’s a bit like wearing gloves on your feet, but if that’s what you learned 5, 10 or more years ago, that’s exactly what you’re going to do.

As manager of the REDRESS® program I was to ensure the Postal Service got the kind of mediation it paid for. Because so many of the mediators on the Chicago REDRESS® panel were already expert in transactional models, I had to meet them where they were if I was going to help them bring their practice into the transformative framework. So in 2004 I began conducting bi-weekly role plays with small groups of mediators. The role play method is familiar to mediators and is one of the best ways mediators can continue to hone their skills. So I fashioned the small study groups after my training experiences with Baruch Bush and Sally Pope, among others. When it came to coaching, I paid especially close attention to the training research of Judith Saul and James Antes. By meeting experienced mediators where they were in their careers and also keeping close to the Institute’s published methods, these small study groups began to help mediators get on track and stay on track.

While the Chicago mediators were growing in confidence with their transformative practice, they also were growing in their understanding of the transformative framework. I insisted on using the language of the model in the debriefs. As mediators spoke more fluently within the transformative framework, they found themselves asking different sorts of questions. Instead of asking simply “Why do I have to do this?” questions of practice became integrated with questions of theory. A turning point came in a conversation with a mediator grappling with the concept of Empowerment in relation to intervention timing. He asked me “How do I know when to empower a party?” I explained (again) that within the transformative framework, a mediator can not empower anyone, but rather looks for that shift—made by a party—from feeling weak in the relationship to feeling stronger, however small that shift may be. I explained that an attentive mediator will see the opportunity for a shift and intervene with a reflection or perhaps a question to open up what the party asserted. I concluded by saying such shifts, however incremental, must be seen and supported by the mediator for a party to gain further confidence and clarity in her statements.

His response to me was as revealing as it was wonderful. “Sure that’s what you say,” he replied, “but I don’t think that’s what the Institute would say.” I can’t tell you how grateful I was to hear these words. Finally! What he said revealed to me that this mediator was growing in his self-confidence with the model, its ideas, its language. He was confident enough to suspect he knew what the Institute would say, and confident enough to challenge me that the Institute and I disagreed. With over 100 hours of training in the transformative framework by Fellows of the Institute, and then using Antes & Saul’s methods, I understood things differently than this mediator. What was more important was that he had begun to understand things differently than he did before.

And he had planted the seed of bringing the Institute to Chicago. I discussed this possibility with other mediators who attended the small study groups. They were ready and eager to engage in a transformative conversation with the Institute. In July 2005, Institute Fellows Winnie Backlund and Judith Saul held a three-day training exclusively for REDRESS® mediators here in Chicago. Interest was so high that all thirty seats were filled before the early registration deadline. The waiting list itself was so long even before the early registration deadline that the Institute stopped adding names to it.

This interest is more impressive to me because the Postal Service provided no funds, scholarships, or payment of any kind for the training; mediators paid their own way. The Postal Service provided only the space. All other expenses were assumed by the attendees. I mention this to highlight the fact that where there’s a will, there’s a way. Mediators who want to improve their transformative practice will find a way to get more training, even if it means bringing it to their city.

Now, I wasn’t at the Chicago training. Winnie and I agreed that the REDRESS® mediators would be more open to discuss problems with the transformative model and the REDRESS® program without a postal ear in the room. For that reason, the Great Lakes Area ADR Coordinator, Therese Lynch, also bowed out of the training proper, though she was available to answer program concerns at the training’s close. Even though I wasn’t there, I heard some great stories. One of my favorites is this: when the training turned to a discussion of summarizing within the transformative framework, a Chicago mediator who regularly attends one of our study groups volunteered to demonstrate. Her colleagues applauded her. Talk about support and affirmation! That was the climate of the training.

Now the three-day Institute training might have been the end of it, if not for the ongoing interest of the Chicago REDRESS® mediators. Interest in the small study groups increased among those who attended the training. They wanted more role play time, more articles and best of all—more conversation about the model. Some have gone on to become certified transformative mediators through the Institute.

The purpose of partnering with the Institute was to begin just that sort of conversation and through it, improve the competence of REDRESS® mediators. REDRESS® mediators learned to talk—even argue—with each other about what transformative mediation is and is not. They have learned to better demonstrate transformative mediation, to better understand the language, to think and apply those thoughts from within the transformative framework. That helps more than the mediator: it helps the employees and managers in the mediation room. And that’s what the REDRESS® program was designed to do.

Did one bad manicure ruin my wedding day? No. But I never got another manicure. Does something similar happen in the field of mediation? I think so. When I first came to Chicago, I would often hear employees say “I tried mediation. It was terrible!” I don’t hear that anymore. In fact, we now see employees and managers wanting to return to the mediation table. Imagine that! Imagine more people wanting mediation more often, for more varied disputes. I like that idea. And I‘ve seen it happen when better mediators create better conditions for better results. Competence matters!


Herman Bingham

Herman Bingham is former Manager, EEO Dispute Resolution for the US Postal Service, Chicago District and served as case manager for the REDRESS® program there. MORE >

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