Ground Rules


Maria Volpe

Professor of Dispute Resolution, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: Can you tell me about your favorite success story?

A: My favorite one is about a decade ago, when our students took over the buildings here at the university. After they had taken over for 23 days, the president asked me to mediate the contested student elections. These were students who had also taken over the buildings. These were my earlier days when I thought that all of the good principles of mediation would work, and I declared it a confidential session. We were going to have our ground rules, and one of them would be that it would be a closed session, it would be confidential, and only the parties to the conflict would be permitted in the room, I think there were like 13 of them. They showed up with about 30 people. My team of student mediators and I thought that only the disputant parties would come into the room.

We had all of our ground rules ready for them. They told us that the sunshine laws were to govern this meeting and that if we didn't open up that there might be a threat of another take over. This was at night when we had gotten the buildings back. So I said to myself, a mediation is a confidential session, however, if these buildings are taken over again tonight, I'll have a lot of explaining to do tomorrow. So, I had a team of about 4 or 5 students to think really quick and hard about how we were going to violate one of our really basic principles of mediation, and have everyone in the room. Not only that, but everyone that had been part of the protest was now interested in knowing about what was going on. After all, I was a tool of the administration because I had been appointed by the administration to mediate. It was confusing about how we were going to handle it.

Then I decided that we, all 6 of us, would stand at the door, and welcome each one of them as they walked in the room by shaking hands. By the time we got done, there were 35 of them, and all the disputants sat on the inner circle, and the others were on the outer circle. We shook every persons hands coming into the room. Now in retrospect, what I think that we were trying to do was to build trust by to humanizing who we were. We opened up the meeting, and you know what, it was fine. They didn't need a confidential session. They wanted everyone to know what their grievances were against each other. I've learned that it is not necessary for every mediation to be confidential. In this case the individuals wanted all their observers in the room. There wasn't any trust between anyone. The secrecy that was going to go on behind closed doors was scaring everyone. What were we going to do to them? I also learned something else during those meetings. The students had been standing outside on the corners with bullhorns. Some of them were really good at preaching for eight hours straight with the bullhorns. We had done a take over the previous year where we had done mediation into the night forever, I mean, these students could really talk. Since there were so many in this case, I decided that they would have timed opening statements.

I ran over to the physical education department and got the basketball clock, this huge clock. When they saw me coming into the room, one student said, I thought that I was going to get whiplash when I saw you coming into the room with this clock. Then they all said, oh no, she's going to time us. And I said I know how much you all enjoy listening to each other. They just couldn't stand listening to each other. I just thought that I would make it easier on them. We started with ten minutes for an opening statement. We figured how long we would all be there. Then there came a point during the session when some of them asked if we could have, while their exchanges were going on, you could tell that they really didn't want to listen to each other, but they felt like they had to, so it was like, "Could you set that for thirty seconds?" Believe it or not, they actually could say what they wanted in thirty seconds. Which then created a wonderful mechanism for us for our town meetings.

...The success was taking the risk on our process, thinking on our feet. The other thing was that I was violating... you know, giving everyone as much time as they needed to talk. In essence, we were here as long as it takes. If I hadn't done that, I might still be there. We had to think about how we were going to open it up , and contain it. With 13 parties, each who could talk for 8 hours straight, we had to find a manageable way of doing this. It has helped me to put boundaries on some of these processes. I no longer think that we need to be there as long as it takes....