It was five years of watching fierce arguments – often unresolved – as a Lexington School board member that made Robin DiGiammarino look into mediation as a form of conflict resolution. One of the basic principles she quickly learned wasn’t surprising: the source of most conflicts is a lack of communication, as well as making inferences from simple situations. “The act of not returning a phone call can turn into ‘you’re a mean, uncaring person’ and then escalate from there,” says DiGiammarino of Arlington-based Lodestar Mediation, who, since training as a mediator in 2003, has helped negotiate over 200 disputes, ranging from divorce mediation to tenant-landlord disputes. But often the solution to a difficult situation, whether it is unpaid rent or charges of discrimination at work, is straightforward. “Provide the party with the opportunity to determine outcomes and let them reach a resolution by themselves,” says DiGiammarino, who is also serves as a mentor for new mediators in Massachusetts District Court. “A mediator is a third-person neutral party who facilitates conversation, not a judge who says you’re right, and you’re wrong.”
U.S. News and World Report named mediation as one of the top careers for 2009, even during an economic downturn: “If we can’t solve a conflict, we tend to give up or hire a lawyer. There has to be a better way: A mediator can often help resolve a dispute less expensively and with less conflict.”
Q: Before you became a mediator, you were an occupational therapist. How are the two careers similar?
A: As an occupational therapist, I helped people set goals to functional independence; as a mediator, I’m empowering people in a different way, helping them to prioritize issues, create options for themselves, and find mutually agreeable solutions.
Q: What sort of scenarios have you encountered as a mediator?
A: One example is housing eviction cases, where the landlord says the tenant owes, say, four month’s rent, and wants the money. He’s usually just focused on the back payments owed. But by the end of the mediation session, he’s realizing that rather than getting the money back, it’s in his best interest to just have the tenant leave. The landlord will even help the tenant pay moving costs. He realizes that he needs to cut his losses and get the apartment back. To the landlord, it’s a surprising outcome that he didn’t expect, but a satisfying one.
Q: What sort of training do you need as a mediator?
A: Mediation as a profession can be entered with only 30 hours of training in Massachusetts, which makes barriers to entry low – but also lowers salaries and tends to cause an oversupply of professionals. But the need for mediators is growing, with new opportunities such as helping families negotiate the tough choices of aging. Everyone should be competent in conflict and not be afraid of it.
Q: Do you use mediation in your personal life?
A: I’m like anyone else; if emotions are involved, I can get carried away. It’s tough to stay objective if you are personally involved. Besides, my kids always say to me, “Don’t use that mediation stuff on me.”