Even half a smile can be cause to celebrate for Uma Bole when she’s serving as a volunteer family mediator.

"They are already ahead, because they chose this process," the Rochester resident said of her work with Mediation and Conflict Solutions.

She said it’s good to see family members work on conflicts and start to relax as common ground emerges.

Bole is one of 41 active volunteers who have gone through intense training to help guide people toward potential solutions to conflicts ranging from neighborhood disputes to long-standing family divisions.

"They are there to help facilitate a conversation," said Wendy Moore, who works part time as the local program’s executive and is the only paid staff member.

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Allan Witz, president of the MCS board and a volunteer mediator for 10 years, said those conversations are often a key step in the process that aims to avoid other potential results of a dispute, such as litigation or police involvement.

After helping initiate a conversation, mediators typically let the opposing parties determine the next steps.

"It gives people the opportunity to find their own solutions," Witz said, noting it might be enough for some to feel they have been heard while others require more formal end to the process.

Mediation volunteers participated in 55 sessions last year, with at least two volunteers participating in each session.

Moore said there’s room to do more.

"I would love to engage my volunteers more," she said, noting the organization could help end more conversations positively, or at least start conversations.

The first step in the process happens when someone in the middle of a conflict contacts Moore. It might be someone who simply heard of the service, or it could be a referral through an agency such as Legal Assistance of Olmsted County, which shares office space with Mediation and Conflict Solutions.

Regardless of how they reach Moore, the conversation starts with gathering basic information, whether it’s involving separated parents seeking help with joint custody or co-workers who can’t share office space.

Once the needed details are in hand, Moore contacts the other party to see if both sides are willing to talk.

If the answer is "yes," she said it’s an early win in the process, which will hopefully be followed by others, regardless of the end result.

"I look at it as a victory if someone calls and says they want mediation," she said.

The next steps in the process largely depend on the participants, who typically arrange a face-to-face meeting at the Mediation and Conflict Solutions office.

Most mediation sessions take two hours. "Eighty percent of the time, that’s enough time," Moore said, noting multiple sessions are possible.

The process can also end early.

"Anyone can end the mediation for any reason or no reason," Moore said.

Witz said even mediation that gets cut short can be considered a success.

"They’ve had an opportunity to talk with each other that they may not have had," he said.

1. The cost of mediation varies.

Wendy Moore, executive director of Mediation and Conflict Solutions, said mediation fees are based on a sliding scale, with those earning less than $25,000 a year asked to pay $25 per session and people earning more than $75,000 asked to pay $100.

Payment is voluntary, and youths and students are not charged, so the average fee last year was $17 for a two-hour session.

"We don’t change services for the inability to pay," Moore said.

2. Alternative Learning Center students have used mediation services for about six years.

Gordy Ziebert, the ALC principal, said the school uses the service in multiple ways, including helping settle conflicts between students, between students and staff and between students and their parents.

"I can’t speak positively enough about that mediation," he said, noting volunteer mediators have also led circles to help multiple students and taught classes on conflict resolution.

He said the partnership has helped students resolve conflicts that could have gotten in the way of their education.

3. Mediation is part of a pilot program in Rochester middle schools.

Mediation and Conflict Solutions is in its first year of a pilot program in serving middle school students in Rochester Public Schools, according to Allan Witz, president of the MCS board.

"It’s a learning experience for us and the schools," he said.

Mediators that work with students in Rochester schools face added training, which includes classes through the school district.

4. Mediation doesn’t have to be face to face.

While most sessions involve getting both parties in the same room, Moore said that’s sometimes impossible.

Some conflict may be so great that people can’t stand to be in the same room, but geography can also get in the way.

When extreme tension divides people, shuttle mediation allows mediators to travel between nearby rooms to facilitate a dialogue.

When geography is the barrier, mediators can use technology to help people talk about a conflict.

5. Parenting time is one of the most common issues for mediation.

Local mediators said helping separated and divorced parents negotiate time with their children is common.

"That’s probably among the top stuff we do," Witz said, noting opening lines of communication with parents benefits the children the most.

6. Each session is unique.

"Different people respond differently to mediation," Witz said, noting the process belongs to the participant, not the mediator.

Uma Bole, a mediation volunteer and retired corporate attorney, said the mediator’s key role is to establish some rules and structure, but the rest is up to the participants.

"It’s clear that it’s their process," she said.

To inquire about mediation services as a way to resolve a conflict, contact Mediation and Conflict Services at 507-285-8400.

Services can be provided to residents throughout Southeast Minnesota.

Visit the MCS website, www.mediationconflictsolutions.org, for more information.