The School Mediator
Peer Mediation Insights From the Desk of Richard Cohen Vol. VII, 2/08

in this issue

Separate Parties to Bring Them Together

Nine Reasons for Calling for Private Sessions

Richard Cohen Interested in Working Abroad in 2008

Response to "Listen Like My iPod"

About Us

Newsletter Archive (and Index!) Available

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The School Mediator's Field Guide:
Prejudice, Sexual Harassment, Large Groups and Other Daily Challenges
by Richard Cohen
more info

Students Resolving Conflict:
Peer Mediation in Schools

by Richard Cohen
more info

Welcome to the February issue of The School Mediator.

This month we explore private sessions and how important it is that student mediators employ them judiciously.

As always, please send along your thoughts and experiences. It is wonderful to hear from you!

Wishing you the best, wherever you are,

Richard Cohen
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates

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  • Separate Parties to Bring Them Together

  • One of the major differences in peer mediation models is whether they employ "private sessions." This month I thought I would explain School Mediation Associates' approach to this issue, and a bit of related history.

    For those of you unfamiliar with the term, private sessions refer to the separate meetings that mediators can hold with parties. Each party is called in individually to speak with the mediators while other parties wait their turn in an anteroom.

    When peer mediation was developed over two decades ago, our pioneering colleagues generally took one of two divergent approaches to these meetings.

    Some relied heavily on the use of private sessions, teaching student mediators to conduct their sessions as follows:

    · First, hold an early "joint session" where all parties give an initial presentation of their concerns.

    · Second, conduct a series of private sessions with parties during which they can speak more openly with the mediators (and vice versa).

    · Finally, hold one or more "later" joint sessions to enable parties to work out the details of any agreement they can create.

    At the same time, other colleagues--as memory serves, particularly on the West Coast of the US--trained students to mediate without the use of private sessions. They recommended that the entire mediation be conducted in a joint "public" session, without the option for mediators to meet with parties separately.

    It was black or white: either you took private sessions during every mediation, or you never took them at all.

    Both approaches seemed problematic to me.

    When mediators take private sessions as a matter of course, much of the work of exploring the particulars of a conflict, of enabling parties to honestly share its impact upon them, of discovering the interests behind parties' positions, of helping parties to reflect upon and, if they are willing, understand the other side's concerns--in short, much of the work of mediation--takes place in private sessions.

    Better to let parties speak directly to each other, and have skilled mediators--who know when to be silent and listen, and when to facilitate, encourage, clarify, probe, referee, summarize, reframe, etc.--do the same work by following the parties' lead.

    The heavy reliance upon private sessions seemed particularly misguided for peer mediation, where:

    1. One of the primary goals of the work is to enable young people to learn the skills and attitudes that will enable them to resolve their own problems.

    2. The population we serve are students who most often have some form of ongoing relationship with one another.

    The default, I still feel, should be to keep parties talking directly to one another. Two decades of experience have now shown that peer mediation sessions can lead to optimal conclusions for all concerned without the use of private sessions. We do parties a disservice--we disempower them-- when we prevent them from speaking with one another directly.

    But what of the alternative: of not using private sessions at all? This also seemed misguided, for private sessions are an extremely valuable tool.

    Though it seems counterintuitive, often the best way to bring parties together is to separate them.

    Private sessions create a "safer space" within which parties can explore their own thoughts and feelings as well as consider the other party's perspective. This can enable them to resolve their conflicts at a deeper level than they would be able to otherwise.

    Private sessions also tend to deepen the trust parties have both in the mediators and in the process, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will benefit from participating in it.

    Survey the peer mediation field and you will still find evidence of these differing attitudes towards private sessions.

    Our method, however, and my best advice, is to teach mediators to have a flexible, responsive approach to the use of private sessions.

    Mediators should be capable of mediating without them, but ready to use them whenever necessary.

    This requires more of mediators, as they must manage the often difficult task of deciding whether and when to take private sessions. New (and experienced!) student mediators sometimes call for private sessions too soon, or they miss an opportunity to help parties by neglecting to call them at all.

    But I believe this flexible approach to private sessions enables middle and especially high school-aged mediators to be of greatest service to their peers.

    Please share your experiences with private sessions...

  • Nine Reasons for Calling for Private Sessions

  • 1. Mediators think that the parties are not telling them everything that is important to the dispute.

    2. The parties are so angry that they cannot be in the same room with one another.

    3. One party seems scared by the other party and is very quiet.

    4. Mediators feel that it would be prudent to discuss certain issues with a party in private.

    5. The parties' stories don't match, so someone might be mistaken or lying.

    6. Mediators have tried many things, the parties are still stuck, and mediators don't know what else to do.

    7. One or more of the parties is very upset and needs time to collect themselves in private.

    8. Mediators think that an agreement that both parties seem ready to sign will not work and they want to discuss this with parties in private.

    9. A mediator feels that it is essential that they speak with their co-mediator (perhaps they sense that their partner is making a mistake that will ruin the mediation, or they are finding it difficult to remain neutral).

  • Richard Cohen Interested in Working Abroad in 2008
  • Richard Cohen is hoping to work outside the United States for a number of months between June 2008 and January 2009. If you or your organization would benefit from having Richard's expertise close at hand, please follow the link below.

    More info...

  • Response to "Listen Like My iPod"

  • In last month's newsletter I asked you to send in your current favorite songs. Though the response was not overwhelming, it did display a wide range of musical taste, as you'll see below. Thanks for writing, and happy listening...

    This is so funny, because as I listen to my iPod and hear songs that I don't really like, I wonder: "what are they doing here!"

    Three fave songs of the moment:
    Mates of State: "Whiner's Bio"
    Abba: "Honey Honey"
    Los Atercipelados: "Juégale Apuéstale"

    Sandy Bacharach
    Spanish Language Mediation Specialist
    Resolutions Northwest
    Portland, Oregon

    Here are some of our mediators' favorite songs:
    Linkin Park: "Pushing Me Away"
    Shadows Fall: "Redemption"
    Rage Against The Machine: "Born as Ghosts"
    Sara Bareilles: "Love Song"
    Flo-Rida: "Low"
    Fall Out Boy: "Reinventing the Wheel to Run Myself Over"
    Tim McGraw: "Live Like You Were Dying"
    Finger Eleven: "Paralyzed"
    Lynard Skynard: "Freebird"
    Alicia Keys: "No One"

    Peter O'Brien
    SAC, PMT Coordinator
    Nessacus Middle School
    Dalton, Massachusetts

    Not that these are my favorite songs, but since the Christmas music is behind us (and I adore Christmas music!), here are three songs that I'm listening to when I let Media Player go (I can't say I have joined the ranks of the iPod users!)

    Thanks for this newsletter. I find it very meaningful.

    Gaelic Storm: "Johnny Jump Up"
    Ted Nugent: "Girl Scout Cookies"
    Mozart: "Requiem in D Minor"

    Ellen Kyes
    Take Ten
    Robinson Community Learning Center
    South Bend, Indiana

    John McCutcheon: "Christmas in the Trenches"
    Sapphire: "Middle Age Blues Boogie"
    Lui Collins: "Step into the Water"

    Kate Kerman
    Youth Programs Coordinator
    Cheshire Mediation
    Keene, New Hampshire

    I too LOVE my IPOD. My three favorite songs are:
    Marc Broussard: "Save Me"
    Dave Matthews: "Stay"
    Fergie: "Big Girls Don't Cry"

    Joyce Nelson
    Conflict Mediation Coordinator
    Spencer/East Brookfield Regional School District
    Spencer, Massachusetts

    Here are 3 favorite songs currently:
    Pinback: "Fortress"
    Pink Floyd: "Comfortably Numb"
    Kinks: "Strangers"

    Carol Cohen
    Chief of Women's Health
    Asiago, Burundi

    Here are my three:
    Van Morrison: "Cleaning Windows"
    Grateful Dead: "Touch of Grey"
    Snoop Doggy Dogg: "Who am I?(What's my name?) "

    Simon McCaffery
    Counselor and Peer Mediation Coordinator
    Stoneham High School
    Stoneham, Massachusetts

    I also use a music project to get my high school students talking about respecting differences. I even admit to them that I am not perfect, that I still occasionally have trouble respecting others' choices. It opens up a lot of discussion about stereotypes.

    My personal favorites lately:
    Eva Cassidy: "Wade in the Water"
    Patti Labelle & Michael McDonald: "A Change is Gonna Come" (Sam Cooke song)
    Sonia Dada: "Cut it up and Cry"

    Bev Bucklin
    Walpole High School
    Walpole, Massachusetts

  • About Us
  • For twenty-four years, School Mediation Associates has been devoted to the application and promotion of mediation in schools. SMA's mission is to transform schools into safer, more caring, and more effective institutions. Our books and training programs have been utilized by tens of thousands of people around the world.

    Call us: 617-926-0994
    Email us:
    Web us:
    Post us: 134w Standish Road,
    Watertown, MA 02472 USA

    Copyright © 2008 School Mediation Associates. You may reproduce this article by including this copyright and, if reproducing it electronically, including a link to

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