Speaking up for ourselves

One of my favorite things to do is mentor new mediators. I’ll do it for free, whenever there is a group of a dozen or so who wants to learn it shows up. This week, I’ll be joining Jessie Basquez, director of the Kauai Economic Opportunity’s mediation program, and we’ll be going to Kapaa High School and Waimea High School. They have peer mediation teams already. We’ll review the basic steps of mediation, and do some practice mediations, and answer all the questions that come up to the best of our ability.

Mediation is a confidential process. It’s used when two people who are having a difficult conversation about something enlist the help of a neutral person who is trained in helping people find their own solutions to the problem that’s facing them. The mediators do not come up with the solutions. That would be arbitration. In mediation the parties speak for themselves, and choose their own solutions. Make sure you get that, because some people come to mediation expecting the mediators to tell them what steps to take to make it right. And some people don’t come to mediation for the very same reason. They don’t want anyone telling them what to do. Mediators don’t.

They ask helpful, thoughtful questions that lead to helpful thoughtful statements and solutions. The ground rules are that only one person speaks at a time, and must speak respectfully to the other. We assume that both sides will be honest, and are there to help find a solution whereby both sides’ needs will be met as much as possible.

Each disputant has his side of the story, and the mediators help each disputant see the other’s side. So finding out what the problem really is, is the first task of mediation. We humans sometimes think that everyone should think like we do, so “of course the other side knows how I feel.” Not necessarily. Or sometimes if one side hasn’t been talking, the other side will make up a story that they think is true, and act from that. I couldn’t tell you how many times problems were cleaned up by getting both sides to tell their stories to each other personally, so that all the “fantasy thoughts” were removed.

After the story is told, sometimes people want the other side to know how they feel. That can be very helpful if they stay respectful, and don’t interrupt. I’ve found that sometimes one side has no idea that something that they’ve done has caused another side to feel pain and hurt. But mediation is not about “Who’s right and who’s wrong.” It’s about finding a solution to a mutual problem. “Where do we go from here?” is a phrase that mediators love to use. It returns the focus to solutions. A mediator might encourage disputants by saying, “If you got yourselves into the situation, you can find a way out of the situation.

To reach a happy mutual solution, both sides need to have their needs met. We all have needs. It’s OK to share what they are. Not wanting someone to use your phone is an expression of our need for privacy. Not wanting someone to talk behind our back is the basic need we have to be respected, and included. So the mediators ask the disputants to share what their needs are, and make sure that both sides understand the others’ needs.

Sometimes there are common needs, and agreements can be made easily. If both sides agree that “I don’t want you to talk stink about me, and I won’t talk stink about you. Talk to me first!” and they agree on what that means, the mediator will write it in their words. Both sides have to agree to any written agreements. When all the agreements are written, both parties and the mediators sign them.

Courts are filled with people who believe in a win-lose way of doing things. I may hire a lawyer or two to help me win my case, but more and more the courts are turning to mediation first to resolve differences. Mediators really hope for a win-win, and hope to open the hearts and minds of the disputants to go for it, too. It is possible to have win-win solutions. Say this 100 times, or until you begin to believe it. It will make your life a whole lot happier. Kauai Small Claims Court cases go to KEO’s trained mediators first. Mediators save the courts time and money, and hopefully keep a friendship, or a good business relationship, intact. But, of course, some criminal cases belong in court.

Usually in mediations, there is some give and take in the negotiation process. Mediators are also willing to think out of the box. I did a mediation for small claims court, and the tenant didn’t have money for back rent because he’d been in a motorcycle accident. I asked him what he did have of value that might be offered if the landlord decided to accept it. Since the tenant also couldn’t ride his bike anymore, he offered it as a trade to pay the rent. It was accepted, and an agreement was written.

In small claims court the court clerk is given the original copy of the agreement, with each disputant given a copy, and one goes to KEO. It’s read in court and becomes part of the court record.

Each high school peer mediation team has its own process of referrals, intake interviews and resolution procedures. Mediations do take a bit of time to set up. So learn to speak up for yourself at the beginning of a conflict, and speak up for yourselves. Remember these few words:

• Tell your story

• How you feel

• What you need

• Get to win-win

Cut this out if you like. It’s empowering to be able to speak up for ourselves. Only we know what our story, feelings, needs and wants really are. And we deserve to have them met, respectfully and in a safe place.

If you’re not sure that the other person is safe to be with, train a friend in this process, and go together. Or find a mediator. KEO does community mediations. Their number is 245-4077, extension 237. Or go to your school mediation team, or start one. Peace to you!

Annaleah Atkinson is a volunteer with Hale ‘Opio Kaua‘i, a support group for teens and their families. Email your questions or concerns to aatkinson@haleopio.org.

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