Fairness, good communication, self-discovery: these words
probably don’t come to mind when you think about conflict.
The Dispute Resolution Center will change that.
Somewhere along life’s trajectory—say, toddlerhood?—the fields of interpersonal conflict begin to accumulate fertilizer. Sure, differences of opinion signify healthy individuality. But chances are everyone has experienced an argument as tenacious and devastating as kudzu in a corn field. A good part of the problem is that we generally are not taught how to navigate conflict very well, if at all.
“Many of us didn’t experience healthy disagreement resolution in our younger years,” observes Roz Magidson, executive director for the Dispute Resolution Center (DRC), a nonprofit agency serving Orange, Putnam, Sullivan, and Ulster Counties. “We may have been from a strict, obey-your-parents background and were taught not to speak as a child. As a woman, we may have been taught we cannot challenge men.”
Magidson was a shy child who disliked dispute, though as the middle child she fell into the role of family mediator. When she later studied conflict resolution, Magidson “came away with a very changed notion about conflict. It doesn’t scare me anymore,” she says. “When I feel a sense of conflict I switch gears, and instead of feeling uncomfortable, I recognize that somebody’s needs are not getting met, or they’re hurting, or misinformed, or left out of the loop—and I see that as an opportunity. That is the most powerful thing I have learned in my life journey.”
Magidson and a host of DRC staff and volunteers are available to help turn disputes into solutions. Colleen Mulready, director of the DRC’s agency in Ulster County, says, “All someone has to do is contact us, talk with somebody on the phone, then come in and we conduct an intake where we learn what the dispute is about. We do a wide spectrum of cases. About half are community issues, like disputes between neighbors, landlords and tenants, consumers and businesses or contractors, personal loans. The other half is family mediation, especially between parents at all phases of separation and divorce.” Additional family services include parent-child mediation, parenting plans, prenuptial agreements, and elder mediation.
DRC also offers school and community programs on tolerance, interpersonal skills, conflict prevention, teen mediation, and much more. The agency is an innovator as well, developing model programs such as Special Education Mediation, Custody Visitation Mediation, the Parent Education and Custody Effectiveness (PEACE) program, and Parents Apart.
DRC to the Rescue
The Dispute Resolution Center emerged out of groundbreaking New York State legislation in 1981 that created a three-year pilot project for community-based dispute resolution centers. The successes of that project inspired permanent funding for centers statewide (administered by the Office of Alternative Dispute Resolution, within the state’s Unified Court System). The DRC began in Orange County in 1982, and gradually grew to oversee services in four counties.
At the heart of the DRC’s approach to conflict resolution is mediation, in which the disputing parties voluntarily come together and are guided by a trained mediator to examine their issues, clarify perceptions, and explore solutions. A common misconception is that a mediator will assess the situation and make a judgment. To the contrary, says Mulready: “The mediator will not be generating any opinion of what should be done or who is right.” Nor does a mediator give legal advice or act as a therapist, though many mediators are knowledgeable in those areas.
“Another misconception,” says Mulready, “is that you have to be ready to reach an agreement when you come for mediation.” Instead, mediation can begin when parties are embittered and stuck. “We ask people first to commit to just having a conversation around something. Mediation can be a chance just to get some clarity, such as what you are asking from each other.”
Mediators at the DRC have trained, apprenticed, and been certified in guiding people with neutrality, sensitivity, fairness, and confidentiality. Many mediators train further for cases in which knowledge of laws and finance are key, such as divorce, and all of them must take continuing education classes.
Merits of Mediation
Topping the list of reasons to choose mediation is avoiding the agony and expense of litigation, which can deepen resentment and also means navigating the court system, fitting in daytime appointments, enduring lawyerly probing into personal history and/or court-ordered psychological evaluations, and forfeiting control of the outcome. In contrast, mediation offers: