Going for the Win-Win | General Wellness | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram
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Going for the Win-Win 

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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:

Free or low-cost services
-Appointments that accommodate work and other responsibilities
-Choice about the pace and duration of the process
-Choice about the content of the discussions
-An opportunity to speak fully and be heard
-A chance to learn new interpersonal tools
-Cocreating decisions

Richard Butler, from Gardiner, has been a volunteer mediator in our area since 1986. “I think it’s an amazing process,” he says. “Mediators are looking for source issues that come up again and again, where people keep getting stuck. When you find those issues, it’s remarkable how progress can be made. Suddenly people become quieter and talk to each other. There’s sometimes a bit of awe in their voice, because they’re at a place they’ve never been before.”

Mediation styles differ somewhat; the DRC can evaluate which is the best fit for each case. Butler explains: “There is a continuum of styles, from a problem-solving approach on one end to a transformative, hands-off style on the other. I do my best to be transformative, because it’s more powerful when the parties deal with the issues themselves, and I just help them through the rough spots where it’s going off the rails. But some people are really coming in for solutions, and need a more problem-solving mediator.”

Do It for the Kids

Mulready chose her path as a mediator because she had witnessed what goes on in family court for years. “I saw how conflict could hold up a case and the outcome for children, sometimes for more than a year. Decades of research shows that one of the most stressful things a child can experience is their parents being in conflict. Mediation can be life-changing for the family, even with parents who didn’t think an agreement was possible.” A mediated separation or divorce agreement avoids the court altogether, except for final review by a judge.

“The programs we offer in family restructuring are near and dear to my heart,” says Magidson. “It’s about helping couples separate peacefully and fairly. That’s so important, because I’ve seen how devastating divorce can be to children.” Magidson started the DRC’s divorce mediation program in 1991, and with colleagues also developed Parents Apart, now the statewide model for helping parents live up to custody and visitation agreements. “I’m really excited about any program that helps families live a better and less stressful life and helps children through these transitions,” she says.

Another, new program works with parents sent by the court. “The Parent Coordinator program helps high conflict couples to communicate and manage parenting effectively,” Magidson explains. “Say it’s a family who is in and out of court with complaints about pick up and drop off of the kids, and who have intractable conflict. Often the children are used by the parents to push each other around, and one parent alienates the child against the other. This creates havoc for the kids on many levels—psychologically, educationally, socially—and ultimately, a child who has gone through this experience can have a lot of problems as an adult.” Magidson has seen parents with years of court fights and police involvement establish a working relationship to benefit their children.

Of course, separated or divorced parents needn’t wait for a court’s order to get help. Mediation helps people clarify agreements and learn to communicate feelings and issues. “The program is not about therapy,” Magidson says, “but we do teach parents how to remain reasonable, and to move beyond their personal issues to create options that work. That’s major.”

Even couples parting peaceably may benefit from mediation. One woman and her husband (preferring anonymity here) did so to be sure they weren’t overlooking issues in their divorce agreement. But there was another motivation: “It was very important spiritually and emotionally to have somebody witness the end of our marriage,” she says. “It was not a happy thing, but we were still friends, and it’s just what we needed.”

Mediators among the Young

Imagine a generation of kids who, from their earliest years, learn how to communicate well, respect one another, and work out problems peacefully. That’s what several DRC programs teach. For instance, The ABCs of Getting Along is for the youngest grades. “It’s an interactive 45 minutes using puppets and songs to embed the principles,” explains Barbara Driscoll, trainer for DRC’s youth programs. “Kids are so open, yet so aware of anger, and have wonderful ideas on how they might deal with it. When I ask for ideas, their hands shoot up. They say: Count to 10, take a deep breath, draw a picture, talk to your parents.”

For older kids, peer mediation is a powerful trend nationwide in which students in conflict meet to resolve their differences with a trained peer. “The mediators take a minimum of 12 hours of training,” says Driscoll, “and are a cross-section of student types so other students respect them as peer representatives.” Other DRC youth programs include VIP (Excel/Victim Impact Panel) in Orange County, teaching nonviolent conflict resolution to juvenile offenders while educating them about the impact of crime, and the YARD program (Youth Achievement, Recognition, and Development) in Sullivan County, which trains young people to manage their own issues and be role models in their communities.

Driscoll also lauds Rachel’s Challenge, a remarkable, nationwide program
(www.rachelschallenge.org) named after Rachel Scott, the first student killed at Columbine. “A number of schools here are involved in this, inspiring students to take a stand in spreading Rachel’s message of compassion, and to actively intervene in anger or bullying.”  The DRC organizes and presents the program on request.

Being the Change
Besides the practical merits of mediation, it is a path to a better world. Newly trained mediator Arzi McKeown reflects: “We live in a very angry world, and if there is a way to reduce that, that makes me happier. In a mediation session you begin to understand what the other person is feeling. You may not like it, but you get a picture. If the parties can sit down and understand their feelings and what the concept of negotiation is, they are going to be better people, and it’s going to benefit others. If we can do that in our own backyard, can’t we do that in Iraq or Afghanistan?”

Dispute Resolution Center
(845) 294-8082; www.drcservices.org

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