Did power differences ever block the process or interfere with it.

Silke Hansen

 [Full Interview] [Topic Top]

Let's talk a little bit more about the issue of power disparity between the parties, and CRS's role as a neutral. Even though you say you are a neutral, you also, in a sense, try to empower the low-power group, do you not? How do you balance that?

If you mean how do I justify that, let's start with that piece first. Very easily, because I don't think I can do an effective job of mediating between two parties if there isn't some balance there. So unless I help bring about that balance, mediation won't work. Of course, you can't necessarily assume that because one side is a minority community that it's the powerless community. That's another issue. But let's assume that, in fact, there is a power imbalance. Unless I can help balance that, and empower each party to effectively participate at the mediation table, we're not going to have an effective, successful mediation. So I explain that to the institution and I offer pre- mediation training to both sides. I also use that as a way to help each of the parties identify what their interests and concerns are, and what they hope to get out of this process. Sometimes, that's particularly important for the institution, because they often start out from the perspective of, "Okay, how much do they want, and how much of that are we going to give them?" They rarely think in terms of, "What do we want, and how much of that are we going to get?" The reality is that they usually do want something from the community, so this helps them become aware of that. This is another trust-building mechanism as well because I'm acknowledging that, "You need things too! What is it that you want? What is it that you're looking for?" I want to make sure that both sides are heard and that we can talk about how each side's needs can be met. I also let the institution know that it's in their best interests to have a well-trained, capable party on the other side because it will be easier to deal with and negotiate with them if they are capable. Part of what the institution is afraid of is that they will have a group of ranting, raving maniacs on the other side that they can't communicate with. So part of what I'm providing is some security, some format which is reasonable from their perspective. I may say to the institution, "Now, you understand that party A is angry and they're going to need to express that. But trust me, we're going to get beyond that, and get to problem- solving." So I lay the groundwork for there being some anger. I hate to call it "venting," because to me "venting" sounds too patronizing. I don't want to be allowed an opportunity to vent; I want to be allowed an opportunity to be heard. So, even though the term "venting" might apply, I avoid that word because it does sound patronizing to me. It has undercurrents of, "They're just spouting off, and they really have nothing to say." In most cases they have a lot to say, but they've never been allowed to say it and be heard before.

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