Meet The Mediator

Can't Talk To Your Neighbor?

Martin Scheinman's career in dispute resolution began in a pool hall at the tender age of 17, when he jumped between two potential combatants and separated them with words rather than fists.

To the one with a pool cue raised high in the air, he cajoled "you're liable to kill him, and that's the end of your life," or, he threatened, you'll be kicked out of the pool hall and it will be the end of your social life. "More importantly," he continued, "I know how hard you worked to buy that cue stick, and do you think he's worth breaking it over?"

Reason supplanted passion and disaster was averted.

Years later, Scheinman is still cajoling, reasoning and bridging gaps between dedicated adversaries. As a labor-management arbitrator for The New York Times, New York's nursing homes and United Parcel Service, he's been put to the test on many occasions.

Scheinman is usually called upon when the parties to a dispute reach an impasse and are unable to reach a settlement. Frequently, he says, personal considerations or emotions like anger -- which can build over time into full-fledged rage -- compound the difficulties in reaching a solution. Sometimes, in fact, the parties cannot even recall what started the dispute.

If you have found yourself in a similar logjam, perhaps with a landlord, a tenant, a tough neighbor or an estranged business partner, Scheinman suggests several possible steps you can consider to solve the problem without fists, pool sticks, or lawyers:

  • First of all, turn to a trusted mutual acquaintance, such as a clergyman, teacher, police officer, or a doctor. As long as the person you turn to is impartial and has good judgement, they may be able to help mediate the dispute.
  • Instead, you may want to try arbitration, where your impartial acquaintance makes decisions in order to settle the impasse.
  • A third possible method is what Scheinman calls a "fact-finding" mission. With this approach, an objective person makes an impartial analysis of the situation and then offers possible solutions.
  • Another option is called conciliation, in which a neutral actor sets a time, place, and a strict agenda for a direct meeting between the feuding parties.
If you are involved in a dispute that cannot be handled with the help of mutual friends and acquaintances, you may want to consider a professional before you go to court. In fact, says Scheinman, the courts frequently advise the parties of a civil dispute to seek professional mediation or arbitration as a more cost effective, timely, and efficient alternative to litigation.

If you are interested in retaining the services of a professional, you can contact the American Arbitration Association, or a local community dispute settlement agency. In addition, you may want to check to see if your local courts provide a compendium of professionals.

Are there any disputes that just can't be settled?

"I'm a pretty optimistic kind of gy," says Scheinman, who confides that he dreams of some day helping to break the stalemate in the Middle East. "People are taught how to fight when they're kids, but very few of us are taught how to solve problems."

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