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Mediation helps resolve neighbourly disputes

In community-based services (which are usually free of charge as opposed to private mediation practices), the mediators are often trained volunteers who work in pairs. This ensures safety in volatile situations and provides more opportunity for language interpretation and cultural awareness.

Before bringing the two sides together, the mediators meet separately with each party to hear them out. Once the details of the alleged offence are laid out, the mediators ask a crucial question: "Why do you care?" This gets people thinking about their values and how to articulate what's important to them. Sometimes, there's simply no rationale for why those grass clippings have caused an all-out war.

It's crucial that the mediators remain neutral. If a resolution is reached, it's the disputing parties themselves who arrive at the agreement. And it's a non-binding one in any legal sense. "It's both the beauty and the difficulty of mediation," says Morton Ninomiya. "No one can be forced to do anything. They develop solutions they can live with, and it's only their own willingness to stick to the agreement that makes it work."

Wanting it to work
Bruer calls mediation "a self-fulfilling prophecy -- it works and is enforceable because people want it to be." That said, there is a written document produced that not only outlines the neighbours' decision but also how they will resolve things when future issues arise. Because, as Morton Ninomiya says, "it's the leaves in fall, but it becomes the snow in winter."

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Getting to the point of agreement takes skill on the part of the mediators, and Bruer says they are chosen carefully for each individual case from a pool of trained volunteers. As the mediators listen carefully and impartially to each side, tempers often cool because the person "feels validated, they feel they've been heard." When it's time to bring everyone into the same room, a certain level of trust has been built in both the mediators and in the process itself.

Both sides now
"Once people are at the table, the mediation process works three out of four times. It works well when it's the right process, and it's useless when it's not," Bruer says. It helps if there's an ongoing relationship between the parties, as with neighbours or family members. And it's a give-and-take process of learning to state your own case but also hear the other person's side. "Things are seldom one-sided in mediation and solutions aren't imposed by an outsider, unlike a situation such as a traffic accident where there is a clear right or wrong and the parties never need to see one another again."

After years on the 911 frontlines, Hildebrand sums it up by saying "society is made up of all kinds of people. We often have problems getting along with our own family, let alone neighbours who do things we don't understand. We need to extend a little more understanding sometimes."

-- Posted: June 8, 2007
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