By: Laura Bloomer, J.D. /MPP ’19
Two years ago, I would not have listed “great listening skills” as one of my top attributes. Yet at its core, being a good mediator requires you to be an active, engaged listener. We listen to what the parties are telling us and use that information to move the conversation forward. We help the two people sitting across from us create their own resolution to whatever issue brought them into court that day. The model we use at Harvard Mediation Program (HMP) discourages offering solutions and taking sides. Instead, we empower parties to develop and agree upon solutions themselves.
We’re not always successful, in which case the parties can return to the court and have their case heard by the clerk magistrate. But when we are successful, parties sign an agreement of their own making and can walk out of court a few minutes later after getting approval from the clerk. As opposed to a blunt solution imposed by the court, the mediated agreement can be flexible and tailored to the parties themselves. We add efficiency to the court system, sure, but we also strive to add a space for people to talk and to better understand each other. We believe that when parties create their own solution to a problem, they are more likely to feel that the result is equitable and will be more likely to abide by the requirements in the future.
I joined HMP for two reasons. On a personal level, I wanted to improve my listening and facilitation skills. On a professional level, I believe in alternative dispute resolution and wanted to get hands-on experience in the field. Over the past couple years, I keep returning to HMP for those same reasons, as well as a third: some of the most caring, thoughtful, and fun students at the law school are also members of HMP. After all, many of the best listeners find their way to mediation, meaning HMP has an incredible support system. It’s also a place of engaging conversation, where discussions range from how to build stronger relationships to improvements to the legal system that would lead to a more inclusive, fairer process.
Since I began training with HMP, I’m confident that not only have my listening skills improved, but also, I now have a greater understanding of the legal system and its effect on people’s lives. I’ve mediated a variety of different disputes: landlord-tenant, small claims, and harassment prevention orders. Some cases are as simple as the parties seeking a payment plan to ensure the money owed gets paid in a reasonable time period. Some are incredibly difficult and involve decades of fraught relationships coming to a head. Many are in between the two extremes.
As mediators, we have to be comfortable with whatever level of emotions parties bring to the table. We strive to acknowledge their feelings and allow the parties to be heard. One of the greatest privileges of HMP is the chance to serve as a trusted neutral through which parties will share their experiences and put genuine effort into trying to reach a resolution that feels fair to both sides.
For many people, this day in their local court will be the only time they directly interact with the legal system. Mediation can redefine this day for them. It brings parties away from the hierarchy of the court room, where the judge sits behind a bench higher than the parties, Latin and antiquated words are intermixed with English, and only the lawyers may freely step in front of the bar. Mediation brings folks to a table to sit together and engage in a productive discussion. Being a small part of making the legal system more accessible by all members of society has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my time at HLS. I hope to continue this type of work in the future and to keep practicing my listening skills, whether through mediation directly or other activities.