From May 2001 NASW NEWS
Copyright 2001, National Association of Social Workers, Inc.

Social Workers Learn Elements of Mediation

Bernard Mayer

Social worker mediator Bernard Mayer leads week-long seminar.

"To be an effective mediator, you need to embrace conflict."

By Corinna Vallianatos, NEWS Staff

In April, NASW mounted a week-long, hands-on training session on conflict resolution for social workers that included lectures, group discussions, and simulations of mediation sessions.

NASW Office of Ethics and Professional Review Manager Maureen McGlone coordinated the "Mediation in Human Services" seminar at the association's national office.

Presenter Bernard Mayer — social worker, professional mediator and author of an entry on conflict resolution in The Encyclopedia of Social Work — opened the training by saying, "To be an effective mediator, you need to embrace conflict."

Mayer pointed out that social workers, by virtue of working in institutions and in a society caught between competing values, are asked to play the role of mediator every day. Child protective service workers, for instance, must bridge the gap between the value of protecting children and the value of keeping children in the home.

Social workers also play multiple roles — enforcer, investigator, case manager, counselor and service provider, to name a few — that demand specific and sometimes contradictory responses.

"Human services professionals encounter many conflicts," said Mayer. "Lack of resources, value conflicts and role conflicts often demand the social worker to play mediator, whether he or she knows it or not. There is a tension inherent in being caught in an either-or role, and conflict resolution, or mediation, can help the social worker break down the polarities that he or she feels and that the client is experiencing."

What the trained mediator brings to a conflict, he said, is four-pronged. The mediator brings skills: listening, the ability to refrain, articulation of unfocused ideas, and management of data. The mediator brings structure: a defining force that changes the dynamic of an interaction, allowing people to communicate in ways they wouldn't ordinarily, especially freeing expressions of anger. The mediator also brings him or herself: humor, personality, compassion and sympathy. Finally, the mediator brings values and ethics: because there is no such thing as absolute neutrality, the mediator will inevitably work off of his or her value system, which could be of nondiscrimination, for example, or empowerment, but which will affect the outcome of the mediation.

According to Mayer, one of the challenges of resolving conflict is to help the clients keep the problem in perspective.

"When people are in need of mediation, they often perceive their very survival as being at stake," he said. "For instance, in a divorce situation, capable people with careers and family support really feel like they're going to end up destitute."

People participating in mediation also have identity needs, according to Mayer. "Their personal meaning, community, intimacy and autonomy are threatened by whatever conflict they're facing," he said. "And sometimes the resolution of a conflict, however necessary, equals a scary loss of identity. For instance, when the Vietnam War was over, antiwar activists felt at a real loss. They no longer had a cause to rally around."

Mayer advised participants to try to help people lay out their interests while also considering their history and any structural impediments they may be battling against, such as lack of money.

McGlone said one of the highlights of the training was that "participants had a chance to simulate mediation in child welfare, neighborhood disputes, elder care, parent-adolescent disputes and many other types of conflict social workers encounter in their practice."

She said the training will be offered again next year.

Back to NASW NEWS Contents