Capacity Building and Neutrality

Silke Hansen

CRS Mediator, Denver Office

[Full Interview]


Let's talk a little bit more about the issue of power disparity between the parties, and CRS's role as a neutral. Even though you say you are a neutral, you also, in a sense, try to empower the low-power group, do you not? How do you balance that?


If you mean how do I justify that, let's start with that piece first. Very easily, because I don't think I can do an effective job of mediating between two parties if there isn't some balance there. So unless I help bring about that balance, mediation won't work. Of course, you can't necessarily assume that because one side is a minority community that it's the powerless community. That's another issue. But let's assume that, in fact, there is a power imbalance. Unless I can help balance that, and empower each party to effectively participate at the mediation table, we're not going to have an effective, successful mediation. So I explain that to the institution and I offer pre- mediation training to both sides. I also use that as a way to help each of the parties identify what their interests and concerns are, and what they hope to get out of this process.

Sometimes, that's particularly important for the institution, because they often start out from the perspective of, "Okay, how much do they want, and how much of that are we going to give them?" They rarely think in terms of, "What do we want, and how much of that are we going to get?" The reality is that they usually do want something from the community, so this helps them become aware of that.

This is a trust-building mechanism as well, because I'm acknowledging that, "You need things too! What is it that you want? What is it that you're looking for?" I want to make sure that both sides are heard and that we can talk about how each side's needs can be met. I also let the institution know that it's in their best interests to have a well-trained, capable party on the other side because it will be easier to deal with and negotiate with them if they are capable. Part of what the institution is afraid of is that they will have a group of ranting, raving maniacs on the other side that they can't communicate with. So part of what I'm providing is some security, some format which is reasonable from their perspective.

I may say to the institution, "Now, you understand that party A is angry and they're going to need to express that. But trust me, we're going to get beyond that, and get to problem- solving." So I lay the groundwork for there being some anger. I hate to call it "venting," because to me "venting" sounds too patronizing. I don't want to be allowed an opportunity to vent; I want to be allowed an opportunity to be heard. So, even though the term "venting" might apply, I avoid that word because it does sound patronizing to me. It has undercurrents of, "They're just spouting off, and they really have nothing to say." In most cases they have a lot to say, but they've never been allowed to say it and be heard before.

Once both parties understand this process--and it's really part of the ground rules or at least the "ground expectations" -- that's going to make the process much more effective. If I explain this to the institution, they'll understand that. They also understand that it's going to take less time to train a police department to come to the table as a team than it does the community (with a police department, it's easy, they just look to the chief. If the chief says it's okay, it's okay, even though they're there as a team.) In terms of a community, they require a lot more ground rules, a lot more preparation, in terms of how they're going to operate at the table.

If there isn't a clear leader, sometimes, I try to split up the leadership role. I try to have different people on the community team take responsibility for leading negotiations around certain issues, so that everyone is head-honcho for a while. But doing that, and helping them to identify their interests and needs, is going to take longer than it does with a police department or a school district. But the institution recognizes that when they're at the table, their time is going to be better-spent and there'll be less time wasted if we do it this way. So they're not worried about the time the fact that I might spend three times as much time with the community as I do with the institution. They understand that it all helps to lay better groundwork for the process at the table.

The other thing that I have found--and at first, I was surprised, but I've gotten now to where I almost expect it--is that when I have those initial meetings with the community, I get a lot of that venting. I hear a lot of the anger. To some extent, it is almost directed at me. But I know it isn't really , it's just that I happen to be there at the time, and they're saying, "Well, you're an official, so why can't you fix it?" I can see that there are some very angry, frustrated people there, and I usually say, "Look, I hear the anger, but I want to make sure that you can express that anger to the institution and help them understand why you're angry." Then, when we get to the table, all of that anger has already dissipated to some extent.

I can recall at least one case where I actually called a caucus because the community was so calm, and said, "Wait a minute. You were chewing my butt yesterday and you were ranting and raving. What's going on here?" I almost had to remind them of the points that they wanted to bring to the table. Now that they were actually at the table and communicating -- that was such a big achievement already -- that the rest of their issues almost didn't matter anymore. My concern wasn't to advocate for the community, but if those issues weren't brought to the table, that would undermine the effectiveness of any agreement. So I thought it was important for an effective agreement to make sure that all of that was on the table.

The preparation I did with them was important too. It gave them some confidence at the table they knew they were prepared, they had an agenda, they knew who was going to cover what, and they trusted me and the process, at least to some extent. The same was true for the institution: they knew that I was going to control the process, they trusted me to keep the discussions on track. That's empowering for both sides. The fact that they really are talking to each other as equals is very, very important for making that process work.