Lessons in peacemaking

Aug. 2, 2023 — In an increasingly polarized world, mediation and alternative dispute resolution related skills are not only necessary life skills, they are a gift.

Whether it’s a dispute among neighbors or a multimillion-dollar court battle between corporate giants, a skilled mediator can guide adversarial parties toward common ground and peaceful solutions.

During the 2022-23 school year, three Grinnell College alumni with expertise in alternative dispute resolution joined other specialists in the field to offer hands-on training in mediation and conflict resolution skills to students. These on-campus interactions provided an insider’s look at career opportunities.

Simone Sidwell, left, and Joseph B. Stulberg
  Simone Sidwell, left, and
  Joseph B. Stulberg

A short class and career panel were organized by faculty and staff in Grinnell’s Peace and Conflict Studies concentration, which allows students across all majors to focus on the root causes of violence and conflict and study strategies for bridge building. Brigittine French serves as the Peace and Conflict Studies Department chair.

The three-week long Introduction to Mediation taught by Professor Emeritus Joseph B. Stulberg of The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, “was a noteworthy opportunity, since typically mediation and negotiation are taught at the post-graduate level in law schools, MA programs, or in non-academic community training settings,” explains Simone Sidwell, coordinator of the Peace and Conflict Studies program.

Fifteen students learned the basics of mediation. The course proved so successful an encore is planned. The short course is being offered again this fall and has already filled to capacity.

“We took a bunch of students out to Pag’s Pizza for dinner before the course wrapped up, and they told us that they got a pretty good sense of the practical skills involved in dispute resolution – the art of listening, how to ask the right kind of questions, how to express empathy and build trust, all to develop the ability to facilitate civil discourse between parties in conflict,” says Gary Doernhoefer ’79, who sponsored the short course and alumni panel.

Gary Doernhoefer ’79
  Gary Doernhoefer ’79

In February, alumni mediation experts Doernhoefer, Jed Melnick ’94, Amy Gernon ’94, and Northwestern University law professor Alyson Carrel presented a panel discussion entitled “Careers in Alternative Dispute Resolution & Mediation.”

Doernhoefer spent the bulk of his legal career as an in-house attorney in the airline and travel industries with experience in a couple of startup companies. In 2015, he founded a case management software company, ADR Notable, which serves dispute resolution practitioners. He admits he never had the personality to be a mediator – he describes himself as too impatient and results oriented – but he increasingly saw the value of mediation and wanted to bring those skills to Grinnell students.

“Mediation is a much more useful and satisfying way to resolve a dispute,” he says. “In litigation it’s winner take all, one side wins, one side loses. Mediation lends itself to more nuanced, creative outcomes that preserve relationships.”

Melnick always liked being in the middle of disputes and found a constructive outlet for that inclination when he attended Cardozo School of Law in New York and worked in a mediation center in Crown Heights, established in the aftermath of highly publicized conflicts between Orthodox Jews and Black residents. A former public defender in Philadelphia, he’s now an internationally known mediator of complex commercial litigation based in Manhattan.

“Bringing in Professor Stulberg was a real coup for Grinnell students,” Melnick says. “He helped teach me mediation related skills at Cardozo as a visiting professor in 1998 and was terrific.  What I learned along the way is that whether you’re mediating a neighborhood dispute, a dispute in small claims court, or a nine-figure piece of complex litigation, the process, skills, and instincts are the same,” says Melnick. “Conflict is a growth business. We see it every day, and people are not only becoming more and more polarized, they’re getting worse at exploring common ground.”

Melnick says in his impression students were exposed to two main things.

Jed Melnick ’94
  Jed Melnick ’94

“First, a set of skills related to communication taught against the backdrop of conflict resolution can help in every facet of their lives,” he says. “Active listening, empathy, creative problem solving, expanding the pie are all skills that are valuable in friendships, relationships, business dealings, and life in general. Second, they heard how those conflict resolution skills can be utilized in their careers in a variety of ways – whether they are in the field of conflict resolution or not.”

Students wanted to know how they become a mediator and what kinds of jobs they can get as a dispute resolution professional.

“The answer is that not unlike playing the trombone or being a surgeon; you might be musical or have nimble fingers but you can’t wake up one day and do it without training and experience,” Melnick says. “I usually encourage aspiring mediators to check in and do a self-assessment. Do you see both sides and the grey in issues? Are you a patient person? Can you be persuasive and speak with gravitas when needed? If the answer to those questions is yes, then go take a mediation training and find opportunities to volunteer.”

Doernhoefer’s efforts to bring conflict resolution skills to Grinnellians began several years ago, when he and his former Grinnell roommate and lifelong friend, Dr. Brent Williams ’79, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, brainstormed about the idea. They eventually met with Professor John Garrison, then chair of Grinnell’s Peace and Conflict Studies program, and came up with the idea for the mediation class, career panel, and summer internships for students coordinated by Grinnell’s Center for Careers, Life, and Service (CLS) through partnership with the National Association for Community Mediation.

A Mediation and Conflict Transformation Initiative Fund established by Doernhoefer has provided funding for these activities, including the student summer internships. Kacie Brookens ’26 is interning this summer in Phoenix with the law office of Jillian Kong-Sivert ’91 while Sophia Carroll ’25 is completing an internship with the Dispute Resolution Center of Thurston County in Olympia, Washington.

“As I got more engaged and met more people in alternative dispute resolution, I’ve learned that they’re some of the most kindhearted and wonderful people you want to meet in our society,” Doernhoefer says. “They’re committed to helping people through difficult situations in their lives, or helping businesses resolve disputes in a more effective manner that’s not so hostile.”

— by Anne Stein ’84

For your information

For more information regarding the mediation initiative, please contact Susan Kriegel, development assistant, via email at kriegels@grinnell.edu. If you’d like to make a gift in support of the mediation learning enterprises, visit the College’s giving page, select “Other” in the Fund to Support dropdown menu and enter “Mediation Initiative.”

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