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Excerpted from Chapter 8: Mediating Conflicts Involving Large Groups in The School Mediator's Field Guide: Prejudice, Sexual Harassment, Large Groups and Other Daily Challenges by Richard Cohen
You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves. —Abraham Lincoln
Using Spokespeople When Mediating Conflicts Involving Large Groups
Most times it is parties' presence at and direct participation in the mediation process that enables them to reconcile their differences. But in large group disputes, this ideal is sometimes impossible to achieve. Parties may be incapable of abiding by the ground rules necessary to create a safe environment for negotiations. Or the sheer number of parties may be unwieldy. There may not be an appropriate space to bring groups together or the security personnel available to do so safely. In these cases, using what are referred to as "spokespeople" becomes the best and sometimes the only feasible method for mediating a dispute.
Spokespeople are individuals selected by a group to represent their concerns and negotiate on their behalf during a mediation session. Spokespeople meet with mediators and with representatives of other groups with and sometimes without their constituencies present. In between meetings with other groups, spokespeople meet in private to report to and receive feedback from their constituencies. The advantages of using spokespeople in large group mediations include that it:
- Streamlines the discussion, saving time and energy that would be lost if everyone spoke.
- Enables disputing parties to achieve a level of intimacy and understanding that would be impossible with all parties present.
- Makes it easier for the mediators and parties to keep the discussion productive and consistent with the ground rules.
- Forces group members to communicate among themselves in order to prepare their spokespeople to represent their interests.
- Provides an audio/visual focus during the session that enables participants to hear and understand one another better.
- Reduces the time that parties miss classes or other responsibilities because sessions are shorter and do not require the participation of all parties.
With the use of spokespeople, schools have been able to mediate large groups disputes without ever bringing all parties together in one room. Mediators first conduct a preliminary private session for all members of each group, during which spokespeople are selected. Next, the mediators conduct a complete mediation session — including joint and private sessions — with only the spokespeople in attendance. These individuals then return to their groups and in private, report the outcome of the sessions. The conflict is resolved if each group member's concerns were adequately addressed by their spokespeople. Sometimes the process concludes with a joint session with all parties present, a portion of which may be devoted to ceremoniously signing an agreement.
Do not use spokespeople simply because there are more parties on one side of a dispute then another. A common misconception is that there needs to be the same number of parties representing each constituency in a large group dispute. But mediation is not a tug-of-war. The mediators' job is to create an environment that is safe, affords the necessary control, and welcomes all perspectives. When this is done, the comparative number of group members becomes irrelevant because all parties work together to resolve their shared concerns. Besides, sometimes a group with three members exerts a far more intimidating influence in a session than a rival group with ten members. It is not unusual to mediate disputes that involve seven parties versus 15 parties, 20 versus 80, and even eight versus 26 versus 60 when more than two groups are involved.
A dramatic difference in numbers does suggest that mediators must ensure that the smaller group does not get overwhelmed by other groups. State publicly the intention to not let the relative size of the groups inhibit the process, strictly enforce ground rules, make sure each participant has an opportunity to speak, and break the time allotted to each group into manageable and roughly equal segments.
It is imperative that spokespeople have the respect and trust of their constituencies. As a result, spokespeople are selected by the parties whenever possible. Mediators and coordinators can provide guidance to groups, suggesting the number of spokespeople to choose (usually three to five) and helping groups identify the characteristics they should look for in their representatives (a good speaker and listener, assertive, well informed about the situation, trustworthy, someone who understands different perspectives, etc.). Most times parties do a good job and choose candidates on their merits rather than on their status in the group. If there is disagreement among group members about the selection, mediators must help parties reach consensus (or risk that disgruntled participants will sabotage the process later on).
In exceptional cases, spokespeople have been selected by coordinators, mediators, and/or school staff. This occurs because the logistics or the urgency of the situation make it impossible for parties themselves to make the choice. Perhaps school vacation begins the next day, or mediators and coordinators learn that students are planning to fight at a concert two hours hence. As long as the spokespeople are a respected and representative group, this has worked out fine.
A final consideration in choosing spokespeople concerns at which stage of the process to choose them. Many factors argue for choosing spokespeople as late in the process as possible, including:
- New parties are often identified and join the process during the early phases of a large group mediation effort. By waiting, mediators provide parties with the largest and most committed pool from which to choose spokespeople.
- It provides the maximum number of parties with the opportunity to participate in the selection and thus support the spokespeople and the process as a whole.
- When parties have an opportunity to observe each other during preliminary private sessions, they are more likely to select spokespeople on the basis of merit rather than popularity.
- With some exceptions, the later in the mediation effort that spokespeople are selected, the more likely that parties will select individuals who advocate collaboration rather than aggression.
Use Spokespeople Wisely
Although using spokespeople can be a tremendous aid to a large group mediation effort, the practice is not without its drawbacks. These include:
- Using spokespeople provides spokespeople only, and not their constituencies, with the opportunity to say their piece (and perhaps by the end of the session, say their "peace").
- Using spokespeople can unintentionally lock out voices of insight and reconciliation, parties who might have said to their peers: "You know, it seems like they have a point. Let's listen to them."
- Spokespeople may not accurately represent the interests of their group.
- Spokespeople may not accurately represent the substance and tenor of joint sessions back to their constituencies.
Spokespeople should therefore be used judiciously. A number of strategies can be utilized to balance the relative control that spokespeople provide with the flexibility that allows all parties to speak. Consider these:
- Use the "open chair" method. All parties attend the session, but only spokespeople are allowed to speak. A chair is placed at the front of the room for each spokesperson. In addition, mediators add one or two extra chairs per group. Anyone who is moved to speak during the sessions can occupy one of their group's open chairs and participate as a temporary spokesperson. When the individual is finished speaking, he or she returns to sit in the "audience" and leaves the chair vacant for others to follow.
- Use spokespeople only at selected times during the process. Spokespeople might make an initial presentation of the issues at the start of a joint session, and then the floor can be opened to anyone with something to add. Or try the reverse of this: Begin the session by inviting anyone to speak as long as they follow the ground rules, and then later use spokespeople to negotiate the specifics of an agreement.
- Rotate spokespeople. Spokespeople can rotate either after a set period of time has elapsed during the session, or for each session of a multi-session mediation. This maintains the structure but gives more parties the opportunity to participate. Keep the same spokespeople, however, for sessions that deal with the same issues.
Try to remain flexible in approach and not get too attached to the format that has been created. Letting groups argue and descend into apparent confusion for a minute might help them release tension and appreciate the other side's perspective. Tolerating what seems to be an "interruption" from one party might lead to an unexpected breakthrough. Mediators create a structure for discussion only because parties have been unable to move forward without one. As soon as parties can constructively communicate on their own, mediators should get out of the way and let the parties do the work. When the size of the groups or the nature of their dispute warrants it, however, using spokespeople can be essential to conducting an effective mediation effort.