Working Without Trust

Silke Hansen

CRS Mediator, Denver Office

[Full Interview]

Can you be an effective mediator if the parties don't trust you?

I guess it depends. My immediate response would be no, but I guess it would really depend on why they didn't trust me. If there is just some hesitation at first about whether or not they can trust me, that's one thing. If they don't trust me for a particular reason, that's different. I think that if they have a particular reason that they might not trust me beyond, "Can you trust any white women?" it might be difficult. But if it's just, "We're not sure, but what the heck -- we will give it a chance," well, that situation has possibilities.

I can think of one mediation in particular: The case was in court when I was contacted. The judge called me and asked and of course it was the one day I came to work in jeans if I could go to court that afternoon. I said, "Sure, no problem," and then I had to decide whether to go shopping over lunch or go home and change. I decided that shopping would be much more fun; plus, I was closer to the store than I was to home. So I went shopping so that I would look semi-respectable going into court. Anyway, I was ultimately asked if I would be willing to mediate this particular case. I had some familiarity with both parties I had, in fact, mediated a case in that community seven years earlier, involving some of the same people.

I found out later that some of the institution representatives had felt a little bit as if they were forced into that first agreement, so there wasn't a lot of trust at that point on the part of the institution. They expected that I would bully them into an agreement; on the other hand, their only other choice at the time was court. The community wasn't very optimistic, either -- they didn't believe that mediation would be very useful with that particular institution, because the institution was too hard-nosed, racist and inflexible, so they had very low expectations. Nevertheless, when the judge asked the parties if they'd be willing to mediate, neither party wanted to appear to be the unreasonable one. So they both said, "Sure."

That ended up being a fairly long mediation, but they did reach agreement. The attorneys then prepared the settlement agreement and so on, which was an outgrowth of the mediation agreement. The institution representative came up to me -- this was either near the end of the mediation or right afterward -- and said, "Silke, when we started I didn't have any confidence in you at all, because I had heard such-and-such. This really worked well, though, and thank you for helping us on this." That person seemed very positive and appreciative of what I had done during that particular mediation process, so it was interesting.