Community mediator promotes reconciliation by consensus

Conflict is inevitable, whether it’s in the workplace, home, or neighborhood. But how you handle the conflict can be the difference between a feud boiling up or a handshake of agreement. Longtime negotiator Gail S. Packer has made it her life’s mission to help resolve seemingly impassable disagreements. She formed the non-profit Community Dispute Settlement Center in Cambridge three decades ago to promote mediation in all its forms.“Dealing with conflict is never easy, but conflict can promote change, and it is possible to find win-win solutions,” said Packer, who calls on a team of 65 mediators – with varied backgrounds in law, social work, business, and education – who provide pro-bono service for angry couples, irate neighbors, disputing co-workers and even gang turf wars. The two-person mediation teams provide a balanced perspective, working with both parties to clarify priorities, reduce misunderstandings and vent emotions. Packer spoke with Globe correspondent Cindy Atoji Keene about how mediation can result in amicable resolutions.

“I spent 10 years in the probate and family courts, which was very satisfying – until eventually it just wasn’t. I was getting burned out on both the level of conflict as well as the challenge of a system that was very much a dinosaur when responding to trends and changes. Many people are clueless about what is involved in trying to work out a disagreement but want a less costly, less adversarial approach. Mediators such as myself don’t make decisions for people but instead are impartial parties trained to facilitate difficult conversations. Studies show that mediated agreements hold up, which is different from the court process, when the judge hands down a decision. There are a broad range of conflicts that come to this center, including landlord and tenant complaints, small claims and consumer issues, workplace conflicts and, of course, couples in the process of separation. Recently we got a call from a new non-profit arts organization – the staff and volunteers were arguing about hierarchy and divvying of responsibilities. The six group members sat down and worked out a structure that everyone in the agency could agree with and went back to work with a clear understanding of everyone’s roles. Sometimes negotiating the terms is so amicable that the agreement isn’t even written down – all the participants need is a handshake to seal the deal. Mediators are trained to be sensitive and aware to the important dimensions of dignity and respect, right down to whether a meeting table is round or rectangle, and how the seating arrangement will affect communication. I always tell people, “Take a deep breath and step back before you speak – don’t be too impulsive or Rambo in your intentions.” I myself make sure that I am wearing a psychic flak vest so I don’t take on the conflict of the people around me. I decompress by swimming in the ocean, which keeps me centered no matter what argument is swirling around me.”


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