3 Foundational Principles in Student Mediation

By Brian Gertler

    CC Image "Conversation table" From UnSplash at https://unsplash.com/photos/NPKk_3ZK2DY

    Student Development professionals are notorious for collecting tools and templates for the myriad of situations they come across in their student development careers.  These tools can range from anything between links to TED talks for student leader training to hall inventory templates on Microsoft Excel.  One of the tools I often see from fellow RDs is a template-style meeting agenda for student mediation processes.  Although there is an obvious professional benefit behind collecting these materials, mediation is a process that does not always follow the “fill-in-the-blank”-style of a template.  Often mediation can get hostile, or a party does not see the process as beneficial, or it is the tenth time a student has had to explain their situation to someone and they are tired of trying to fix the issues altogether.  These factors call for adaptable mediation practices that rarely present themselves in a borrowed template-style agenda. 

    In short, entry-level Student Development employees often have the tools and some experiences to feel confident in approaching student conflict and mediation, but they rarely have the training or education to back it up professionally.  This is a shame because effective mediation can lead to some of the most impactful life lessons in conflict resolution a student can receive outside of the classroom setting.  If you, like many, cannot afford certified mediation training, here are three foundational principles to get you started. 

    ***Information gathered from Abilene Christian University’s M.Ed. Higher Education program track in Conflict Resolution

    1.  Minimize Biases.

    Be quick to recognize how previous relationships may affect the mediation process.  Mediation is all about trust.  If a student feels as though you trust the other party’s word over theirs, you are setting the students up for a stress-filled learning experience.  In fact, if you are familiar with one party significantly more than the others, it might be best to recruit a fellow RD, unrelated to the situation, to handle the mediation process.  Handling mediation with biases can cause students to lose trust in their RAs, RDs, and often the institution as a whole.  Be careful to not set everyone up for failure before you even begin mediating. 

    2.  Don’t be an Arbitrator.

    Arbitration is the act of settling a dispute between two or more parties. In student mediation, the mediator should be careful not to act as the arbitrator for the students involved.  Remember, this is a conflict resolution learning process between students.  If you are giving them the answers to their issues, the process is void of any lesson.  Considering that student mediation is a model for effective conflict resolution, it should be treated primarily as a practice in conflict management rather than a problem-solving tool.  Therefore, there is no room for arbitration, unless the parties involved request it. 

    3.  “Act as if…” 

    In conflict resolution, this phrase is attributed to various approaches in the realm of mediation.  It is an open-ended phrase that can mean the following: 

    • Act as if…the students’ conflict and resolution has meaning (even if the issues and conversations seem petty at times).
    • Act as if…you are confident that an agreement will be reached.
    • Act as if…the steps taken towards a resolution are just as meaningful to the resolution itself. Etc.

     The thought of mediating a conflict can be extremely intimidating.  However, the phrase “Act as if…” is one that will relieve much of the stress and intimidation during the most anxious parts of the mediation itself.  Keeping an “Act as if…” mentality will allow you to feel self-assured throughout the typically strenuous process of mediating.  Even if you are a mediation virgin, a confident attitude can go a long way with students in these situations.  It is important to note, however, that this posture of confidence is not an excuse to “fake it till you make it”.  The well-prepared mediator is the successful mediator.  The “Act as if...” confidence, as well as your attentiveness to the process, will allow for students involved to trust the mediation and find the freedom to explore solutions.  

    It is also important to note that students can tell if the conversations seem to be in gridlock.  This is a very disheartening time in mediation for everyone involved.  Encouragement is key in situations like this. Therefore, you should “Act as if…” a solution will soon be reached.  I remember when I was child my family would take these long road trips for summer vacations.  I would always ask the age-old question: “Are we there yet?”  My mother would always say the same thing: “We’re about 20 minutes away!”  I now know that we would usually be more than 20 minutes away (usually hours away), but it gave me a sense of peace and excitement for the anticipated arrival to the destination.  Simply put, be the mom of mediation.  “Act as if…” the destination is just around the corner, even if you know that you are only just beginning. 

    Student mediation is a process of adaptability and patience.  You are teaching students how to resolve conflict while practicing that process simultaneously with them.  I encourage you, as you push your students towards effective peace-making, to trust the process and be attentive to the work that you are doing.  It might surprise you how powerful an experience in effective mediating can be to a young adult.  Keep this in mind as you navigate the vast world of student mediation!


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    Gregory Lawton Jan 9, 2018 11:37am

    I would like to discuss this more with the author, if possible. I have a background in conflict resolution and am living into a new role as Associate Dean of Students at a university that uses some restorative practices but not in a fully integrated way. Insight on how to train RAs and RDs to be comfortable offering facilitation and mediation would be greatly appreciated.