Harry Mazadoorian
Harry Mazadoorian (No Name)

One of Connecticut’s oldest and most distinguished ADR organizations is Community Mediation Inc. (CMI). Frequently operating without fanfare and appropriate recognition, CMI toils tirelessly to resolve those disputes which tear at the fabric of everyday life, such as domestic disputes, landlord/tenant conflicts, parent/teen misunderstanding, property line disputes and even barking dogs, just to mention a few.

CMI addresses divisiveness in a wide variety of settings. While these disputes are not the ones which make front-page national headlines, they are of monumental importance to those involved as well as to the community at large. In the course of addressing these disputes, CMI creates a climate of open discussion by teaching peer mediation to middle and high school students, facilitating community dialogues, educating the public about dispute resolution options and mentoring newly trained mediators.

One of the times when CMI stands front and center in the public eye is when it confers the annual Robert C. Zampano Award for Excellence in Mediation. This award recognizes and celebrates leadership, initiative and creativity in mediation while remembering the untold contributions of the late Judge Robert C. Zampano, who was a giant in the growth of ADR awareness and use in Connecticut.

This year, on the 25th anniversary of the first Robert C. Zampano award, CMI chose to take a hiatus from presenting the annual award and instead chose to examine conflicts of national concern — quite different from the disputes with which it normally deals. Three of Connecticut’s most respected dispute resolvers, serving as a panel, were asked to consider how some of the techniques which they employ in their practices might be used in broader national conflicts.

Frances Calafiore, Jay Sandak and Jonathan Silbert were each asked to identify a high-profile conflict and suggest a dispute resolution technique which might be useful in addressing that conflict. While each member of the panel focused on only one technique, it was understood that there was great potential for transferability of each technique to other high-profile, divisive matters. It was my privilege to serve as the moderator of the panel, which was assembled by Brenda Cavanaugh, CMI’s executive director.

It was especially fitting that this discussion took place on the 25th anniversary of the Zampano award, which has done so much to highlight, inspire and promote creative ways to address conflicts which, to some, have seemed unresolvable.

It was made clear at the outset that the panel did not mean to suggest that any single tool or technique of dispute resolution alone can resolve any major issue but rather that the consideration of that technique has the potential to open dialogue as a needed step in the resolution process. The purpose of the discussion was to explore and demonstrate the benefits of using techniques which have proved effective in very different disputes.

Topics selected by the three panelists were fascinating and diverse.

The first conflict addressed was one we have been reading about in the press for some time: the polarizing positions taken on university campuses when controversial speakers are invited to speak. Too often, holders of diametrically opposing views have stifled the orderly presentation of views with which they disagree in myriad ways, some involving violence, but often chilling the free expression of ideas, which has long been considered to be a hallmark of the university experience.

A second conflict discussed involved the method by which communities, particularly in southern states, but certainly not limited to the South, have dealt with symbols of ideologies and practices now considered to be abhorrent. Examples have included renaming or removing monuments, and challenging symbols representing disavowed ideologies, while protests frequently claim preservation of the artifacts because of their historical significance.

The third divisive matter presented for discussion involved conversations on proposals for major changes in our country’s legal system, such as tort reform and handling medical malpractice claims. The debate between stakeholders advocating elimination of the “fault” system and those wishing to retain it has at times become hostile and shrill.

Among many techniques covered, two hallmarks of negotiation and mediation were discussed — the first focusing on interests rather than positions; and the second being the importance of reality testing being useful in a wide variety of applications.

Throughout the discussion several mediation-related tools were presented by the panel, all with the suggestion that the techniques had wide transferability from one type of dispute to another. Each panelist was asked to propose one technique of particular interest, so clearly the list of techniques was intended to be illustrative rather than exhaustive.

One basic technique suggested was providing each of the opposing parties a forum in which to advance their positions. Clearly, one way of discouraging inconsiderate demonstrations intended to drown out or prohibit inconsistent views is to guarantee that a party will have the chance to speak and, even better, to be heard by those with opposing views.

Still another technique proposed was the use of active listening. Listening to another point of view is a good start, but more important is truly hearing and understanding the opposite point of view: Deep and mindful listening being the ultimate goal.

Yet another technique presented was the creation of trust by both the mediator and the adversary. A discussion of this technique was especially fitting during the anniversary of the Zampano Award, as one of Judge Zampano’s greatest strengths in resolving the L’Ambiance Plaza and other seemingly irreconcilable disputes was the level of trust he inspired. The overarching techniques a mediator must bring, according to the panel, are professionalism, preparation, persistence and patience.

Finally, it was stressed that through it all, it is essential that the mediator—and the disputants—step back at appropriate times during the mediation to look at the big picture.

The panel did an outstanding job, in a short span of time, in identifying a number of dispute resolution processes which have wide—perhaps universal—applicability, ranging from community and interpersonal conflicts to tort, family and business-related disputes and high-profile national policy debates with far-reaching implications.

At every level, we are living in a divisive world. But at every level, opportunities exist to bring disputants together, no mater how small or large the conflict. Civil conversation, active listening, trust building, and giving people an opportunity to be heard are important tools in coming to a resolution. Divisiveness need not be the norm.