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Resolving conflict can help in many parts of your life: Susannah Gal

Posted 11/20/19

In previous columns, I’ve talked about my love of learning new things. Well, a course I took in early October reflects an idea I have for my retirement.

The class is Basic Mediation …

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Resolving conflict can help in many parts of your life: Susannah Gal

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In previous columns, I’ve talked about my love of learning new things. Well, a course I took in early October reflects an idea I have for my retirement.

The class is Basic Mediation Training run by Advoz, a group in Lancaster. This was a three-day training session that is recognized as a first step to becoming a volunteer mediator for disputes in the community.

Advoz is a nonprofit group that does mediation and restorative practices for all kinds of people and organizations in Lancaster County. There is a sister organization, Neighborhood Dispute Settlement, that does similar work using a similar approach in Dauphin County.

The training was done by four presenters and involved about 10 people, who came from all different walks of life and from as far south as Virginia and from the northern border of Pennsylvania. The presenters had been trained as mediators and worked with the organization for a number of years.

During the three-day training, we first talked about conflict — the different styles and types. At one point, we each created a metaphor for conflict. Some were quite expected — a thunderstorm or a lake with lots of waves. Others had metaphors that brought in the idea that conflict is all around us and part of life — one person even said that “conflict was like the air we breathe.”

My metaphor related to my experience with weaving and fabric. I likened conflict to the warp strands on a loom. These strands are tight and under tension, and strung parallel to each other. The weft strands are woven between the warp strings to form the fabric. I considered those strands and the resultant fabric as the positive result of resolving a conflict.

We then practiced our listening and reflecting skills, which are super-important for effective mediation with parties trying to convey their concerns and problems. What they also talked about was the idea of positions versus interests. Positions are statements about what someone wants, and the interests are the underlying reasons for the positions. An example of a position would be something like “I need a $3,000 raise in my salary,” while an interest could be “my rent increased and my car insurance both went up by a total of $3,000.”

After each party airs their side of the conflict and you listen to the positions, you look for common ground between the two groups. These are sometimes hidden and need to be pulled out, although these steps can be used to create agreements consistent with the interests of both parties.

The goal is to create an agreement that each group can sign and support that allows the conflict to be resolved. These agreements can be used in a court or by a lawyer to finalize into a binding document.

The Advoz group has a fairly prescribed way that they train in mediation which provides a great framework for a successful resolution to conflict. We got a chance several times to practice mediating conflicts given as scenarios to members of the class. This part I liked, both when I got to play the disgruntled party (did I tell you I’m an amateur actress?) and when I acted as the mediator for the situation. Having their framework really helped guide the process. It may not always work, although usually more understanding still results.

Another way I’ve been supporting my interest in mediation is by reading a book called “I Beg to Differ” by Tim Muehlhoff. The subtitle of the book is “Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love.” It has a lot of references to specific parts of the Bible. I’m reading this with a Christian faculty reading group on the Penn State Harrisburg campus. We read a chapter each week and then discuss how the insights provided are consistent with our own experiences and with our faith. It’s been fascinating to share in this growth with two to 10 others.

You might wonder how I hope to use this training in my work on campus. As a past leader, I’ve had challenges with inter-staff conflicts. Having these skills will allow me to support better communication and a positive resolution to the conflicts in that setting.

There may also be conflicts between myself and a student — sometimes on grades ;-) — or between faculty on a specific issue. I do think these skills will serve me well in many different areas of life. I imagine that when I retire, I’ll be able to support the community by doing mediation for public groups or couples trying to find a resolution to their conflicts. That seems like a productive way to spend my time and to provide a benefit to the town residents.

May I also suggest something to enrich your upcoming holidays. Last year, I mentioned the book “Unplug the Christmas Machine” as a useful resource for trying to create a Christmas holiday filled with joy.

This December, the Presbyterian Congregation of Middletown will do a series on the book and provide ideas for helping us enjoy the holiday. Melanie Luther and I will co-lead these sessions we’re calling “Take back Christmas!”

On Dec. 1, we will discuss the challenges in managing Christmas and define our values for the upcoming holiday. On Dec. 8, we will share ideas for our fantasy Christmas Day, and then the last two weeks, create a plan for getting toward that fantasy.

The group will meet from 9 to 10 a.m. the first four Sundays in December in the lower level of the church at the corner of Water and Union Streets. Let me know if you’re interested to learn more.

I hope you enjoy your Thanksgiving holiday and get a chance to get together with family and friends.

Susannah Gal is a professor of biology at Penn State Harrisburg, and is a member of the Press & Journal Editorial Board. She has lived around the world and made Middletown her home in 2015. She can be reached at susannahgal1000@gmail.com.