Finding compromise can seem like a lost art in today’s world. But the state of Michigan offers volunteers who specialize in bridging gaps.
Michigan’s Community Dispute Resolution Program (CDRP) includes 17 organizations using volunteer mediators who help opposing parties reach agreements on a variety of issues.
LISTEN: How Michigan uses volunteers to mediate some of the most difficult conflicts among family members and legal opponents
It operates under the state court administrative office, a division of the Michigan Supreme Court.
Michelle Hilliker, manager of the Office of Dispute Resolution, says there are only a few requirements to become a volunteer mediator. And according to Hilliker, there’s an almost endless supply of conflicts to address.
WDET’s Quinn Klinefelter spoke with Michelle Hilliker from Michigan’s Office of Dispute Resolution about the training and tactics needed to be a volunteer mediator.
Michelle Hilliker: The mediators themselves can be from any profession, pretty much. They are required to take specific training. If you were interested in serving as a civil mediator then you would need to take a 40-hour general civil mediation training course. Then they would also be required to observe at least two mediations conducted by an approved mediator, then conduct at least one mediation on their own under the supervision of an approved mediator. If they’re interested in domestic relations, in more family-type cases, then they would take a 48-hour training course. The civil training would be something like a breach of contract or a landlord-tenant case. Whereas domestic relations would be something like creating parenting time or helping with aspects of a divorce. The attorney might be helping with the asset distribution and things like that. But perhaps the attorney might like to have their clients go to a mediation center to discuss the parenting time and who will get the children on which days.
WDET: Things are so divided nowadays, in so many aspects, politically, economically, that it almost sounds unusual to hear about somebody trying to bring people together. Do you have any data or examples that you’ve found just how effective this is actually working?
What we’re finding is that people generally are quite happy with it, because we are able to schedule them generally under 30 days, where many times if you’re waiting for a court hearing or something, it might take a little bit longer. These conflicts are very, very upsetting and very stressful. The sooner that you can get them resolved, the better the parties will feel about it and the more peace there will be in their life. So trying to get it in as soon as possible is actually the best case scenario.
Beyond the speed of it, though, is there any sense as to how well the program seems to be doing? Are they usually able to come to some kind of a resolution in these cases?
Yes. Generally what we find is between 70 and 80 percent reach a settlement. And by settlement I mean, if the parties are willing to use the services of a mediation program, then the individuals will be able to come up with an agreement. One of the things that’s really positive about this is that we have found when individuals do reach an agreement, they tend to keep it. We’ve actually done a few numbers on different types of cases. For example, if you went through mediation, if you created an agreement, then typically in the family division cases, 71.8 percent of the parties will keep their agreements. The two parties will live up to what they promised. In civil agreements, we find that’s somewhere around 82 percent. And in the landlord-tenant mediations, we found somewhere around 83.3 percent.
And it’s not like arbitration, where the arbitrator has a final decision that is binding? This is just people being able to help others cooperate well together?
Yes. And a lot of it is allowing the parties to talk. That’s one thing we find is that the individual, sure they could call somebody else to help. But having that neutral, calm person in the middle, kind of setting the ground rules and saying, “Okay, could you explain how you feel about this? Can you explain what you would like to see happen or what you would like to do?”
And then asking the other party that same thing. That really seems to be helpful. Because then both individuals feel they’re heard, both individuals are contributing to the conversation, they’re able to explain how they feel or what they felt was damaging or upsetting about what had happened. And they may not come away with everything that they wanted. But they’re definitely, if they agree, coming away with things that they can live with, that both parties can live with.
You’re taking someone who is basically a lay person to volunteer as a mediator. By definition, it sounds like these cases would have to be contentious to some degree, because they are one side against the other. Is it hard to train people to stay calm in those kinds of situations, where it’s obviously not calm on either side?
Many people will go into the training very well-intended. They really are interested in becoming a mediator. But they might take the training and just say, “You know, this is not for me.” And that’s okay. Occasionally we do find that not every person that takes the training will actually end up as a mediator. But even if you’re not interested in becoming a mediator, the program is available for any citizen who has any kind of conflict. The nice thing about the Community Dispute Resolution Program centers is that they offer multiple types of mediation. And they offer it electronically. We have a platform now that you’re able to go on and there is no fee for that case. You can actually file if it’s a civil case. You may also have a Zoom mediation so you don’t have to meet in person. Some of the centers are starting to meet in person again. So there is the possibility of having a live in-person mediation as well.
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