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Mediators bridge disputes with active listening

A new team is in town to help settle business and personal conflicts by making sure that both sides of the issue are heard and understood.

The 30 members of Six Rivers Community Mediation Service are ready to assist parties in voluntary dispute resolution that can forestall costly legal battles. The nonprofit group acts as a neutral third party to help foster better listening and communication skills. Their ultimate goal in each encounter is to strengthen both working and personal relationships.

“We would like to infuse in this community a better way to dialogue, a better way to listen,” said Dr. Rod Windle, psychologist for the Hood River County School District, who heads the new program.

Twenty-seven volunteers were recently selected through an application process and then given 32 hours of specialized training. Through standards set by the Oregon Mediation Association and Oregon Dispute Resolution Commission they have learned how to facilitate disagreements that range from landlord/tenant issues to consumer quarrels and land-use arguments.

“Mediation creates a safe space where listening becomes possible,” said Mediator David Dorocke, a project management analyst from Hood River.

Chris Walls, a Hood River family court coordinator, said she was spurred to take on her new role by watching the effectiveness of court-appointed mediators.

“I’ve been interested in mediation for a long time on a personal level but I’ve also seen it work well on a court level,” she said.

Walls, Dorocke and their peers will now apprentice with the three experienced mediators on their team to hone their new skills. Their charge is to remain neutral and not offer ideas while helping disputing parties listen to what each other has to say, assisting them in re-framiing the words back to their opponent and asking open-ended questions to keep the communication flowing.

“Parties come to the table with strong feelings and their own solution, mediation helps them find out what lies behind those positions,” said Windle.

The new Six Rivers volunteers include people from all walks of life who have agreed to repay their training by donating up to 60 hours over the course of the next year, an average of five hours per month.

“Usually you start to cover some common ground and that’s where you start to see what a solution looks like,” said Marti Kantola, program director.

The availability of a local mediation program has an added benefit of cutting the civil case load in the court system, something that will prove valuable with budget deficits forcing the statewide closure of courtrooms one day a week from March 1 through June 30.

Six Rivers is Oregon’s 25th community mediation program and was started with $37,000 in seed money. The confidential service is available in Hood River, Sherman, Wheeler and Gilliam Counties and headquartered in The Dalles office of the Mid-Columbia Council of Governments, 113 Kelly Ave.

However, Kantola said that meeting space will be provided as needed in each county. The cost for a mediation session is $50, although Kantola said that no one will be turned away due to an inability to pay.

Windle said that all interested parties are welcome to call about obtaining mediation for their cases, although the service will not work for conflicts where one or both parties require professional counseling — such as deep-seated or longstanding disputes that are fueled by complex underlying issues. However, he said mediation can be a great way for parents and teens to work out solutions to common problems such as curfews. It can also help neighbors settle noise complaints, quarrels over pets, and boundary issues.

“You’re really trying to build a foundation on even ground because if that happens then both parties have collaborated in its construction and it is more likely to work for both of them,” said Doug Crow, a Mosier resident who is already working as a court mediator for small claims in Multnomah County. He also hopes to apply his new skills in his controversial role as a Columbia River Gorge Commissioner.

Kantola said the professinal skills learned by mediators can also be “broken into pieces” and taught to interested businesses and organizations.

For further information she can be reached at 541-296-5220. Hood River residents can also call toll-free at 1-888-628-4101.

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