The title of the Bob Dylan song, The Times They Are a Changing, is apropos when looking at mediation practices over the last 30 years. As recent tragic headlines point out, violence can erupt in any setting, even those once presumed safe. Violence by deranged individuals, spurned partners and disgruntled former employees is making mediators evaluate the safety of their mediation sessions.
Even those mediators not practicing in emotionally charged arenas of employment, family or child custody are taking a fresh look. How do mediators determine if a setting is safe or dangerous? Can a template be developed to provide safety for all mediation participants? There are many considerations, and this article highlights three: participant safety, site safety and mediator safety.
Case intake forms include a variety of questions, and now it is time for community and civil mediators to include ones on personal safety. The questions should address if the parties or their counsel have safety concerns1. If there are “yes” answers, then more questions should be asked about the specific nature of their concerns. Is there a history of abuse or violence? Have there been threats? Are any of the participants known to have problems controlling their emotions? Are any of the participants known to carry firearms or other weapons? When there is a concern for safety, the mediator needs to make a conscious decision whether to continue. This article does not treat this particular issue.
Less dramatic than questions about violent behavior, but nonetheless beneficial, are precautions that include establishing safety related ground rules before the mediation session begins. For instance, indicating how people will act and communicate during the mediation session is constructive. Some mediators develop code words, so that a participant can indicate if he or she is feeling threatened or intimidated2.
In order to be free to fully engage in the mediation process, participants must not only be physically safe, but they must also feel emotionally safe or the mediation will fail in its purpose. Fear can be caused by the threat of physical violence, and feeling unsafe may also be caused by intimidation, feeling powerless or pressured. If a person is nervous or feels vulnerable, having someone accompany them to the mediation may help allay their concerns.
At mediations, where the potential for violence is possible, or if threats were made during the mediation, parties should leave the building at different times. Having the vulnerable person leave first, accompanied by an escort is another way to help maintain participant safety. Later, the more volatile person is escorted to his or her car. The person escorting the parties should be instructed, in advance, to avoid talking about any topic associated with the mediation.
When considering the safety of the mediation site, first and foremost are exits. It is important to be familiar with all doors, including stairwells from underground parking, delivery and emergency exits. Doors to the outside should remain secure and the corridors well lighted and free from obstacles. Some mediators use facilities with metal detectors and security personnel. In these situations safety concerns are minimized. In other settings, briefcases, or other hand carried containers should be inspected. In more than one mediation, a mediator jokingly said, “Leave your weapons at the door,” to which the participants promptly removed revolvers from their briefcases. If inspecting briefcases and purses seems inappropriate, perhaps no bags of any kind should be allowed into the mediation rooms.
Advise mediation participants of the safest routes to the mediation, and of the proximity of public transit stops. It is a good idea for all participants to know the closest location of “safe places” i.e. police and fire stations, hospitals or urgent care facilities. If the mediation location is unsafe after dark, schedule sessions early in the day or find an alternative site. Parking areas need to be close to the building and well lit. Shrubbery should be trimmed, so it does not provide a place for an attacker to hide.
Placing parties in separate rooms, while waiting for the mediation to start, or establishing slightly different arrival times are other options. If it is determined that the potential for violence is great, consider phone, video conferencing or on-line mediation. Many mediators are already conducting mediations entirely in separate caucuses to help provide a safe environment.
It is advisable to have at least two rooms available for the mediation. Then if necessary, the mediator will be able to separate the parties. The reception areas, caucus rooms and mediation rooms must be free of objects that may become weapons, such as scissors, heavy statues or bookends. This may seem an over reaction; rather it may be a case of “better safe than sorry.” Following one mediation, a disgruntled party obtained a pair of scissors, waited in the elevator, and then stabbed the other party.
Additional considerations might include creating a calm environment by decorating with soothing colors, such as blues and greens, and avoiding reds and oranges, which are more likely to stimulate people. Wall decorations and art depicting pastoral scenes is preferred over high-energy, abstract art.
The placement of the mediation table is another consideration. Easy access to the door for everyone is recommended. There is not consensus over where the mediator should sit. Is it better for the mediator to have his or her back to the door, or should the mediator sit facing the door? Each place has its own challenges. Facing the door means that the mediator is the person farthest from the door, and exiting might be difficult. A mediator, whose back is to the door, is vulnerable. Prudence requires the mediator to stand up and face each person as they enter or exit the room. A phone close to the mediator, with emergency phone numbers in memory, is useful. Having a co-mediator may be beneficial— safety in numbers.
During rapport building, mediators should refrain from disclosing specific personal information, such as where they live, where a spouse works, schools children attend, and other similar details. One mediator reported being stalked by a former mediation participant, who figured out where she lived from this sort of casual conversation.
Before every mediation, mediators must make it standard procedure to check in and out with someone, providing information about the site, estimated time of arrival and departure, and who is attending. If a contact person is not available, then a message should be left on the mediator’s answering machine. Again, established code words may be useful to signal problems, including hostage situations.
Part of mediator awareness includes being able to quickly assess what common items are available for personal protection: a flashlight or tennis racket in the car, a pen or hot coffee in the office3. Shriek alarms, whistle or air horn will often scare off an attacker.
To what extent is a mediator responsible for the safety of the mediation participants? Some say the mediator needs to make a “reasonable effort.” What is included in that standard? The question is as yet unanswered. For now, it is advisable to have a safety plan4 in place for preventing and responding to violence, for The Times They Are a Changing.
Nancy Neal Yeend is a member of the National Judicial College faculty, has served as a civil mediator for over 25 years, has been a Florida primary circuit civil mediation trainer for over 15 years, and is with the John Paul Jones Group with offices in Los Altos, CA and St. Petersburg, FL. firstname.lastname@example.org
Carol Borunda serves as a professional and volunteer civil mediator, who recently returned from several years in Skopje, Macedonia to open her mediation practice in San Diego, CA. Borunda@aol.com
1Florida required family and dependency mediators take domestic violence training; however, as of August 1, 2007 all community and civil mediators are now required to take two hours of domestic violence continuing education training as part of their recertification process.
2Separation, Domestic Violence, and Divorce Mediation, D. Ellis, N. Stuckless, and L. Wright, July 2006 issue of Conflict Resolution Quarterly, vol 23, no 4.
3Police and sheriff’s offices often provide information guides on personal safety.