Leanne Lawson is the executive director of the Mediation Center of Dutchess County, whose mediators help people resolve conflicts without going to court.
What makes an effective mediator?
An effective mediator has a commitment to both the process and the practice of mediation. A lot of people think that you have to be an attorney to be a mediator. You can be, but it’s certainly not a prerequisite. One of our longest-serving mediators is a retired postal worker. He’s been with us since the inception of the center, 36 years now. He takes on a lot of our small-claims cases and is motivated by a strong willingness to help his neighbors and the community through different disputes.
What should someone going into mediation keep in mind in order to make it an effective process?
Be open to it and understand that it’s their decision and their voice. What we find a lot is that people don’t understand mediation at first, and they’re looking for the mediator to make decisions for them or to tell them that they’re right and the other person is wrong. That’s not our role. Our role is to help the parties get clear about their issues and to hear the other person, so that something shifts. Sometimes they realize, “Oh, that’s actually not what I wanted at all.” Through that process there very often is a resolution. It may not be a monetary settlement. It may be “I don’t need to be in small-claims court; I’m just mad at you for all these other things.”
How has COVID-19 affected the work that you do?
We’ve taken everything online but we were very slow and careful with it and we’re still tweaking. We’re helping the courts with their backlog of cases that they have because of the pandemic, helping to save people from even having to go to court if they choose mediation.
Is it harder to mediate online?
It’s a little bit harder because you’re not in the same space to sense that shift in things. But what’s even harder is trying to mediate in person, from a distance, with a mask on, and being worried about transmission and that someone just touched your pen. It’s different and interesting, but we’re finding it’s still effective. We did hear from a party who mediated virtually after mediating in-person in court, who said: “This was wonderful, I didn’t have to go to court, pay for parking, spend all morning on this case. I was able to schedule it after work.”
How is the work that the center does in restorative justice being utilized now?
A lot of our restorative justice work had been focused on youth work and higher education. We’ve been training teachers how to use circles with their students, which is when everyone sits in a circle and everyone gets a chance to speak, or not speak. But now we’ve had a lot of positive feedback from our partners who are using these techniques in their online learning. They knew it was important to connect with their students, and the circle process helps navigate through that, to check in with the students and ask them if they’re OK. There’s a deep connection and a sense of community that is created through circles. And then the students are more engaged in the lesson.
So now we’re offering free community dialogue circles twice a month on Thursdays. We started it at the beginning of the pandemic because we were wondering what we could do to respond to the crisis. Everyone felt disconnected. So we started offering free community circles with self-selecting groups like parents or essential workers or business owners. Those were already popular, and then, after the killing of George Floyd, it shifted. People needed to talk about it. So we’re working with a lot of anti-racist visioning and movements. It’s labor intensive, but it’s important in these moments for us to all ask ourselves what we can do collectively.