Class Teaches Skills to Intervene in Disputes

Feb. 8, 2010

UT Dallas students interested in learning how to settle highly contentious, potentially costly disputes outside a courtroom now can earn the hours required to qualify as court-appointed mediators.

The School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences launched a new course, Advanced Conflict Resolution, this semester after adding conflict resolution to the undergraduate curriculum in spring 2007. Both courses now are available for graduate students as well.

“There’s a growing awareness of the value of using mediation to settle disputes both in the legal world and in business,” said Dr. John Stilwell, an attorney-mediator who teaches the classes. “Students are developing the skills to enter the legal world as mediators or add depth to their résumés as they prepare for positions of responsibility in corporations.”

A recently approved certificate program offered by The Negotiation Center in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences will provide similar training to the general public starting next academic year.

Texas requires 40 hours of training to be qualified as a mediator in state courts. The first course satisfies that requirement. Individuals must gain an additional 30 hours of training to qualify for roles in family dispute resolution cases, such as divorces. The advanced course provides that training.  Students must take the first class as a prerequisite for enrolling in the advanced course.  With the instructor's permission, both courses may be taken concurrently.

UT Dallas offers other dispute resolution classes through the School of Management, but they are aimed primarily at pre-law or business management majors who are seeking a slightly different set of skills, Stilwell said.

A clinical professor of psychological sciences, Stilwell has 46 years of legal and business experience and is a former partner in the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. He said the two classes are only the first steps toward offering a more extensive training effort.

“UT Dallas already is offering something other area institutions aren’t. Our program is designed to be broad, instead of narrowly focused. We want our graduates to be able to develop skills that they can apply to legal disputes, to their careers in business or even to their personal lives.”

The new courses attract a cross-section of students, including a  psychology and business majors. Stilwell currently is collaborating with UT Dallas faculty and administrators on a new syllabus for a potential interdisciplinary master’s degree program in conflict resolution.

“UT Dallas already is offering something other area institutions aren’t. Our program is designed to be broad, instead of narrowly focused,” Stilwell said. “We want our graduates to be able to develop skills that they can apply to legal disputes, to their careers in business or even to their personal lives.”

Students are taught how to use their communication skills to more effectively persuade the interested parties in disputes to consider all options. This can be challenging because the two sides often stubbornly cling to their positions and have a difficult time subverting emotions in pursuit of the most sensible solution.

During the class, students engage in intensive role play not only as mediators but also in the roles of parties, attorneys and possibly others who may participate in the resolution process. Thus they develop an understanding of the process from different points of view.

“The most important element in building the skills of an effective mediator involves acquiring a disposition of neutrality,” Stilwell said. “If you’re going to work well with the different parties, you must display openness while maintaining a firm, quiet authority. It’s a difficult balancing act.”

About 95 percent of legal cases are settled before the parties enter a courtroom, Stilwell said. Unfortunately, a high percentage of settlements are at or near the day of trial, after a great deal of money and effort have gone into developing a traditional legal approach.

The new, advanced course focuses on the type of cases that can be the most difficult to resolve:  family disputes involving divorces, property division and suits affecting the parent/child relationship.

“These cases often require a more intense effort to get the parties to prevent their emotions from clouding their judgment,” Stilwell said. “In the class, we work toward helping them understand the dynamics of family conflicts, domestic violence, arguments over what is the best environment for the children involved.”

Often the biggest challenge in mediation often is persuading the two sides to agree to settle outside court. Since the parties begin the process as adversaries, it’s usually tough to get them to agree to anything, including allowing an outside party to facilitate their decision-making process, he said.

“You frequently hear the use of war metaphors when discussing divorces. This confrontational, win-at-all-costs attitude usually doesn’t end up benefiting anyone in the long run.”

But a growing number of divorce lawyers are endorsing mediation to settle difficult separations, and more couples – especially those facing complicated and protracted financial disagreements – are embracing alternatives to open court.

“You frequently hear the use of war metaphors when discussing divorces,” Stilwell said. “This confrontational, win-at-all-costs attitude usually doesn’t end up benefiting anyone in the long run.” 

Businesses also are increasingly looking for ways to settle disputes without the expense and time required by court cases.

“I believe most companies would see added value in hiring an employee who also had training in resolving disputes,” Stilwell said. “These kinds of disputes occur all the time in organizations, and if there is someone around who is qualified to mediate, then a business can function more efficiently.”

Students who complete the courses and get letters attesting to their qualification can work as mediators in the courtroom, though many judges still prefer to use lawyers in these roles. But the tide is turning, Stilwell said, and there is increasing need for mediators who don’t have a traditional legal background.

After completing the UT Dallas courses, Stilwell encourages his students to continue on with a one-week practicum such as that developed by Dallas Mediation Services, which involves hands-on experience helping to mediate real-life disagreements.

“In modern society, our tool-making capacity seems to have somehow exceeded our peace-making capacity,” Stilwell said. “Our kids and grandkids are watching us and hoping that we develop new and better ways to resolve our disputes.”


Media Contact: Emily Martinez, UT Dallas, (214) 905-3049, emily.martinez@utdallas.edu
or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, newscenter@utdallas.edu
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John Stilwell, an attorney-mediator who teaches the UT Dallas classes,  has 46 years of legal and business experience and is a former partner in the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

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