Neutrals across the country must have experienced a mutual shudder as we read about a party leaving a Phoenix mediation, lying in wait for the other party and his lawyer to leave, and then shooting them, along with a bystander.
My initial response was from that core, human place. I mourn the loss of life and the injuries. I imagine the fear of those in the immediate area. I wonder if I know, or anyone I know knows, the mediator or any of the participants. My heart goes out to the mediator, Ira Schwartz.
Then I think about how this will play out amid the current debate about the role of guns in our society.
But then I imagine the critical questions this raises for those of us in the ADR field.
- As neutrals, what are our responsibilities?
- For those of us involved with court ADR programs, what are our special responsibilities?
I reflect on my roots in this field. Back in the 80s, when I learned to mediate I was taught to sit near the door in case I needed to get out and I was taught how to establish the kind of authority in the mediation that made it a “safe” place to deal with conflict. I remember joking with my mediation colleagues about the sense of invincibility that mediators can feel when we are so wrapped up in the mediation process. (No doubt youth had something to do with that sense of invincibility, too.)
Later that decade, I ran a community mediation program and trained new mediators. The first hurdle they had to clear was whether they were “safe” in mediation. Could they sense when tempers were rising and allow the expression of emotion, but still maintain a safe environment? Did they know what to do if a party came to mediation with a baseball bat or even a gun? They needed to understand so many things, but as a foundation they had to understand how to keep the situation physically safe for themselves and the parties.
Since then, society and mediation have become more complicated; some might argue more violent. But some of these complications are good. We have learned how to address domestic violence, decide when mediation may or may not be fitting, and figure out how to adapt mediation when warranted. For those of us working in court ADR, many of our cases are handled within courthouse security, although that would not have helped the situation in Phoenix.
As mediators and court ADR professionals, what does this event in Phoenix teach us?
First, mediation is inherently dangerous. People in conflict are often at their worst. We need to accept that so we can build systems that keep it as safe as possible.
Second, we need to follow safety steps in every mediation. We need to sit near the door and have a protocol in case something happens. When we sense that one party may be dangerous, we need to end the mediation and give the other party time to leave ahead of the potentially dangerous party. We need to value safety above getting resolution or any other values, even when we might feel invincible.
Third, screening is not a luxury that only family mediators can afford. Just as we have learned that preparation can help the parties be more likely to reach agreement in mediation, we can use those preparation interactions to spot any potential safety issues and address them with the parties before the mediation.
These are just the beginning of what we can do as mediators. (And if there is anything that recent events have reminded us, it’s that we cannot stop every potential violent act from transpiring.) What do you do to keep your mediations or your mediation programs safe?