McCormack Speaks

Five Key Tips to Resolve Conflict: What I Learned in Small Claims Court


A Conflict Resolution student at the McCormack Graduate School


While many people might like to avoid conflict altogether, as a graduate student in conflict resolution, I jumped at the opportunity to gain hands-on practical experience learning to mediate between plaintiffs and defendants in small-claims court. However, through this internship, I not only learned effective mediation strategies from skilled and experienced mediation mentors, I also learned skills applicable to all levels of human communication. Through this internship, I was able to put into practice the art of recognizing and appreciating the underlying human values behind a dispute, learn to balance engagement in the conflict with detachment from outcome, and to become aware and mindfully check my own biases towards one party or another.

Whether you are considering mediation, small claims court, or simply interested in new ways of thinking about conflict, here are five factors you can consider that may help you on your path towards resolving your dispute: worthiness, respect, safety, understanding, and connection.


One of the first things we learned in small claims court, whatever the parties’ initial stories, was that it was almost never just about the money. While the amounts we mediated over were not the multi-million dollar suits we might see depicted in a legal drama or headlined in the news, over the semester long internship, I came to realize that for our involved parties, those thousands, hundreds, or even tens of dollars often represented fundamental human needs and values such as that individual’s sense of worthiness that were of far more incalculable and universal worth than the numbers being discussed on the surface.


As such, when values such as these were violated or threatened, the intractable resistance one party could show in bridging the last few dollars separating two sides from agreement versus going back to trial became far more understandable. A few dollars were one thing–but a man’s need to be seen with integrity or a woman’s need to have a harm experienced acknowledged and valued? Each individual’s need for respect and recognition was fundamentally important to facilitate a constructive and forward-moving dialogue process.


As important as worthiness and respect are to the process, safety is another critical aspect for a successful mediation. As a small claims court mediation intern, I felt incredibly privileged to not only learn academic theory from experienced mediators, but also practical techniques to create and hold “safe space” for those who came to our mediation table to engage in what were often very difficult and emotional conversations.

This safety can be developed in a variety of ways. One of the first things we learned as mediators-in-training was an introductory script explaining to our clients, among other things, the voluntary, confidential, and self-determining nature of the mediation process. Once clients sat at our table, we stressed these three factors as often as they needed to be heard in order to assure them that mediation was a safe space where they could engage in open dialogue without fear of coercion or reprisals.


In addition to these built-in characteristics of process, however, our mediation mentors also discussed many mediator “capacities” we could cultivate that would enhance our ability to create safe space. Through a combination of seminar readings, and my own observations, and practical court experiences, I found that the ability to hold the dual truths of engagement and detachment from outcome felt necessary for both ethical and productive mediation. As conflict resolution experts Daniel Bowling and David A. Hoffman [1] described, mediators need to invest in the parties and the conflict while still being able to let go of their own goals, expectations, and pressures for a successful settlement. While this kind of equanimity and evenness of mind is a capacity that might at first thought seem more associated with meditation practices, through this internship I got to experience just how relevant they could be for mediators as well.


Another important learning we had in the context of our small claims court experience was the concept of the mediator as an “impartial” or “neutral” third party who would not take sides in the dispute. However, when I personally strived to think of myself as this ‘outsider’ not on anyone’s side, I found myself sometimes starting to feel an emotional distance and even indifference (as opposed to detachment) towards the parties for whom I was mediating. While I still listened, reflected back, and moved through the mediation process, I was not as fully present and engaged in each moment. As such, I sometimes missed how my internal biases shaped concrete actions I made during a mediation.

However, conflict resolution expert Kenneth Cloke’s concept of “omnipartiality” [2] was transformative for me. Instead of no sides, I reframed my role as being on all sides of the conflict. This perspective helped me more authentically engage in my interactions with the conflicted parties, and helped me become more mindful in not only noticing when I felt bias or judgment towards one party or another, but also to be able to let it go and re-engage without feeling stuck or subconsciously influenced by whom I internally felt was “right” or “wrong.”

Final thoughts

Ultimately, this mediation internship was an invaluable experience for me. While much of what we learned was ostensibly for and in the context of mediation in small claims court, I found that the majority of skills we learned and practiced were not only applicable in our work as mediators, but also helped me better understand and communicate with people in my life in general. As such, whether you are considering a career in mediation, are involved in a conflict you are hoping to resolve, or simply want to improve your communication skills and relationships with others, you can consider these five factors of worthiness, respect, safety, understanding, and connection, and see for yourself what a difference it might make!

[1] Bowling, D. & Hoffman, D.A. (2003).  Bringing Peace into the Room: How the Personal Qualities of the Mediator Impact the Process of Conflict Resolution. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[2] Cloke, K. (2001).  Mediating Dangerously: The Frontiers of Conflict Resolution. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


  1. Did you also find that there were some cases that shouldn’t have come through the court system? When I did my internship in the Quincy District Small Claims Court, I was left with the feeling that our courts should become more interdisciplinary places. When one comes into a court one could have the opportunity before filing a small claims case, to become better educated about other opportunities for help, or at least get pointed in the right direction. I understand that court provides many people the chance simply to be heard, but it seems that there should be that possibility without a cost associated with it. And almost everyone had been preyed upon by a TV show to tell their story to the cameras. Poor people are so vulnerable; I believe that the State of MA should help wherever they can.

  2. Fabulous descriptive summary of the personal value and growth entailed in UMass Boston’s Mediation internship. By far the most relevant and applicable training of any mediation training I’ve participated in over the last 7 years.

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