Why can’t we all just get along?
For the times that we can’t, there’s a fascinating local San Diego organization called the National Conflict Resolution Center. I stumbled upon NCRC while attending a first reading of Raul Castillo’s Border Crossing play. NCRC was looking into collaborating with artists; in particular, the dramatic play would stop during certain moments and the audience would engage in conflict resolution conversations. This intrigued me enough to look at their website where I found they have a community center in the South Bay–specifically, in San Ysidro.
Curious, I called up NCRC and asked if I could interview them. They responded immediately and I was able to visit their office, which shares space with the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce.
Ashley Virtue, Director of External Relations, who works in their downtown office, met me there and explained that NCRC has offices located throughout communities in San Diego County. The idea is that they have specialists on the ground providing free mediation services to local communities. The organization as a whole has 28 employees, plus a large number of volunteers.
It Started With Law Students
The organization began as a grassroots vision in 1983. A group of law students at the University of San Diego felt there was too much litigation and not enough peacemakers, so they started offering free mediation services. Everyone knows that the courts are spilling over with complaints. An individual might wait anywhere from six months to a year to have their claim appear before a judge.
Mediation Instead Of Litigation
A large portion of NCRC’s community work takes place in small claims court. Due to state budget constraints, the courts in Kearny Mesa and El Cajon have closed down. As a consequence the legal process is backlogged.
From The NCRC Leaflet
Why Should You Try Mediation?
1. It Works: a majority of cases reach an agreement
2. It’s Satisfying: you control the outcome
3. It’s Cost Effective: avoids expense of litigation
4. It’s Fast: can be scheduled in 7-10 days
5. It’s Convenient: locations throughout the community
6. It’s Confidential: keeps disputes private
7. It’s Flexible: can be used before, during, or after a case has been filed in court
8. It’s Professional: mediators are highly trained and experienced
Virtue says, “Many judges and clerks believe that a lot of people could be resolving their issues not in front of the judge. They want to give people the opportunity to take a little bit more control of the process and be a part of the solution as opposed to the judge just telling them, ‘This is what you’re going to do.'”
NCRC has staff who spend their time in the small claims court. There, they’ll give people a packet with NCRC’s phone number. Judges, too, will refer people to NCRC– and their mediation services are free.
Mediation is a 100% voluntary process
I ask Virtue if there are times when mediation is not possible. She answers, “Yes, because mediation is a voluntary process. If you have someone who is unwilling to go through the process, we are not going to hold the case.”
Virtue explains that NCRC sees some of the more stubborn clients have a moment of truth. What happens is that there are people who might initially want their day in court. However, on the court date, they have a moment of truth right before they go in. They don’t want a judge to have total control over the outcome of their case. NCRC’s staff is physically present and they actually do mediations on-site within the courts.
Of course, Virtue points out, there are always those who have a more high conflict personality, or the issue has been so long standing that they want their day in court. Everyone has a right to their legal process. However, Virtue says, those are few and far between. Much of the time mediation is a better option.
Conflict Resolution Training
Because mediation is about effective communication, a huge part of NCRC’s work is in providing training courses. Their downtown office has courses, such as how to manage conflict between employees. They also work with universities on a training called The Art of Inclusive Communication, which addresses diversity and how we can effectively communicate with people from different backgrounds.
Virtue explains, “It’s not just accepting that diversity exists, because we all know that it does, but really how that’s a positive enhancement to any university, organization, workplace and how you can acknowledge differences and communicate effectively by acknowledging those.”
Their trainings have become so popular that they have contracts nationally. Their roots are mostly based in San Diego, working with SDSU, UCSD, Qualcomm and employees from the City and County of San Diego.
After 9/11 they also had contracts with Homeland Security, including Customs and Border Patrol. Right after the NYC terrorist attacks, employees of the CBP were being taught the technical skills of how to check people and look for contraband, but the training lacked the soft skills of communication. NCRC provided training on how, for example, to deal with an upset person crossing the border. How to maintain your interest of doing your job right, while treating a person with dignity and making sure communication does not escalate into conflict. Their contract, however, lasted a short time and they haven’t worked with Border Patrol since at least around 2007.
The San Ysidro Community
I also met with Maria Stacey, the South Bay Community Justice Coordinator who is the full-time employee in the San Ysidro office. She has held the position for 4 months, replacing Luis Gonzalez who recently retired. The office has existed for about a decade.
Interestingly, the San Ysidro office is funded by the County. Specifically, when people file a case in court, they pay a filing fee which goes to fund mediation.
Stacey, a resident of the South Bay herself, recently completed a Master’s degree in Leadership Studies with an emphasis on human rights from USD. She now branches out into San Ysidro, providing mediation on a wide variety of disputes.
Landlord-Tenant, Neighbor-Neighbor, Parent-Teen Disputes
Her largest number of cases are landlord-tenant disputes. When calls some into NCRC headquarters downtown they assign Stacey–who is fluent in both English and Spanish–the cases of callers who live in the South Bay zip codes (National City, Imperial Beach, Coronado, Otay Mesa, San Ysidro).
“Unfortunately, a lot of the community often don’t speak the language and they have miscommunications with their landlord, which is very common. Sometimes it leads to evictions,” Stacey says.
Her job is to explain the process of mediation and get both parties to come together, collaborate and find a solution. In eighty percent of her cases, the two parties come to an agreement.
The other kinds of disputes Stacey might see are neighbor to neighbor, such as a barking dog, or consumer-merchant disputes, such as calls about credit card payments or warranty issues.
Recently, Stacey reached out to the San Ysidro School District in hopes of creating a parent-teen mediation service. When parents have concerns about their kids ditching school or running away from home, often the children are left out of the communication process.
Virtue explains, “In these cases, where it’s parents and teenagers, it’s so empowering for the teenagers to feel like they’re on an equal playing field with their parents and that there’s this neutral third party in the room who is really navigating through this situation.”
In mediation the teenager can say–sometimes for the first time–that this is how they feel. When they are grounded, it doesn’t work for them. However, the teens are also held accountable. A mediator might say, ‘If that doesn’t work for you, what does work for you?’ The teenagers are able to go into negotiation with their parents, with this safety of a third party helping to navigate. More often than not, parents and teenagers leave hugging each other and sticking to their agreements.
NCRC mediators such as Stacey remain completely neutral. They do not advocate for the landlord or the tenant, the neighbor or any company. Instead, they want to help both sides come to a resolution. Neutrality is imperative for the mediation process to work.
“The whole mediation process is about empowering people. It gives people the opportunity to take hold of their conflict and speak for themselves not only what they need or hope to see resolved, but they become a part of the problem-solving,” Virtue says.
Take A Look At Their 11 Tips On Conflict Resolution
- Talk to each other in person.
- Talk in a private place.
- Assume that something can be done.
- Be creative and flexible.
- Use “I” statements.
- Blaming is not useful in solving problems. Look forward.
- Focus on behavior, not personality. You don’t have to like each other to address a specific problem.
- Listen without interrupting or reacting. The other person will be more likely to extend the same courtesy to you.
- Try to hear the needs behind the complaints. What is really driving this dispute?
- Avoid each other’s “hot buttons”.
- Look for joint solutions that require both of you to do something.