Sep
5
2007

While some veterinarians cringe at the thought of litigation, a number of professionals are wading into the field of mediation, a gentler approach to conflict resolution that can be utilized with clients, partners, and pet owners. One veterinarian who lectures on the subject said colleagues describe mediation training as life changing.

“It helps in every interaction you have with every person, every day,” said Carin Smith, DVM, a certified mediator who spoke at an American Veterinary Medical Law Association meeting in July.

Karl Salzsieder, DVM, JD, who attended the session, puts mediation clauses in all of his contracts as the preferred dispute resolution method. It is especially helpful for veterinary professionals, he said, because mediation is less stressful and less formal than arbitration or litigation. "I am a strong believer [in the process]," he added. "In mediation, the stakeholders make the final decision as compared to arbitration or litigation [where] the third party makes the final decision."

Nationally, the Uniform Mediation Act has been adopted by at least nine states since it was drafted in 2001 by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws. The group endorsed it for use in all states.

Mediators take on facilitative or evaluative roles in the eight-step process that includes information intake, outline of agendas, and opportunities for both sides to talk.

“Good mediators talk less than the other parties,” said Smith, who often uses a co-mediator. Professionals, who can be certified and trained in the technique, ensure that conversation flows and can meet privately with each party to help expedite an agreement. Meetings should include all parties involved—and affected—by the agreements, she added.

The most effective use of mediation—or dispute resolution—is to utilize the techniques of listening objectively and offering ways to find common ground and collaborate on creative solutions before people are mad, Smith said.

“Because people don’t know how to talk to each other, they go to court,” Smith said during her presentation to veterinarians and lawyers. She described the benefits of incorporating mediation into contracts and encouraged her colleagues to pursue alternative forms of dispute resolution with interpersonal employee conflicts, client issues, partnership troubles, and group conflict resolution.

“One day I gave a presentation [on] difficult coworkers and was astounded to find a packed room,” Smith said in an interview. “At some point I casually asked, ‘How many of you have a conflict resolution policy at work?’ And zero hands went up. I was shocked.” Since then, Smith has worked with industry groups to establish consensus on industry guidelines, given lectures at conferences, and worked with individuals to establish common ground and sidestep litigation.

“People often ask or assume that conflict is about conflict with clients, [but] I have found that coworker conflict is a much bigger issue,” she said. “This is what veterinary teams deal with on a daily basis.”

On an industry scale, professionals are recognizing the benefits of talking about issues before they become courtroom conversation. The corporate chain VCA has integrated resolution clauses into contracts and some veterinary medical associations are mediating cases between veterinarians as well as using the technique with clients who lodge complaints, according to professionals.

While mediation can be helpful in many instances, Smith pointed out that it should not be used when court orders, such as restraining orders, have been issued, in cases where there is a lack of good faith between parties, or when crime is involved. Mediator confidentiality does not apply when a previously unreported crime is revealed, she added.

Services, which range in price from $100 to $300 per hour, are available from a variety of sources, including community-based resolution centers and several associations and membership organizations, such as Mediate.com, the Association for Conflict Resolution, and the National Association for Community Mediation (www.nafcm.org).

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