Conflict as fertile ground: Mediation in West Marin


Got conflict? If so, not to worry. It’s a normal and natural part of life and we all experience it.  It’s the escalation of suffering that often arises from conflict that can be prevented—through skillful communication. Conflict can be fertile ground for transformation into a peaceful and productive path forward. While this outcome is hard to see when we are in the middle of conflict, mediation can open the eyes of both parties to new understandings and mutually satisfying change. 

First and foremost, the process of mediation is a way to facilitate effective communication between conflicted parties. Not all conflicts can be mediated, and not all mediated conflicts reach a successful resolution, but most do. Anyone can learn deep listening, empathy, mutual respect and a non-judgmental approach. Admittedly, this can be challenging, especially when strong emotions are involved. Most of us have been conditioned to cope with conflict in ways that frequently make matters worse, such as blaming others, denying the problem, masking our deeper needs, listening in a biased way, clinging to one outcome and avoiding unpleasant feelings. Moreover, while listening is essential to good communication, few of us are prepared to listen without twisting what others say to conform to our own agenda.  

As one of the newest of the dozen or so volunteer mediators at West Marin Community Mediation, I consider what I do a service for the community. Our founder, Sadja Greenwood, first got together with others in Bolinas in the late 1990s and received training from expert mediators from San Francisco’s respected nonprofit Community Boards. Out of that came West Marin Community Mediation. Our monthly meetings, regular practice and occasional community-based conflict resolution trainings hone the skills of member mediators. Around 2010, we started to reach out specifically to the Spanish-speaking members of our West Marin communities, and we now have bilingual mediators.

Our group helps a wide range of individuals and groups—from neighbors, friends and family members to merchants and consumers, landlords and tenants, and more—communicate and explore ways to resolve conflicts. When you call us, we listen, and if we think we can help, we’ll work with you to find a time and a place to meet and mediate.  

As mediators, we don’t take sides. Rather, through our non-judgmental listening, participants discover possible solutions and common ground. Confidentiality is of the utmost importance, and we honor it by promising not to disclose any matters discussed after we leave the mediation context. Police, courts and any other community organizations that may have an interest in the details discussed in a mediation are not given access to any information. Our services are free.

What we’ve found is that beneath the anger, frustration and fear of a conflict, there are often hidden unmet needs. The attention-getting turbulence on the surface of a conflicted relationship may cover up—and can usually be traced to—these unmet needs. Mediators at West Marin Community Mediation help parties explore those needs and the interests that may have spiraled into conflict. As they bring these to light, the parties often discover a new sense of freedom, allowing them to look beyond the turbulence and find solutions that address their deeper wants and needs. On many occasions we have witnessed mediation sessions end with smiles, visible relief and satisfaction.

When you schedule a mediation session with us—and it usually only takes one—you can expect to find a completely new orientation to the problem that allows greater freedom of choice and a spectrum of possible solutions. The aim is less a transaction, with either party walking away with a piece of the winnings, than a transformative process that gives both parties the confidence that they have been heard and respected, and had their true needs met.


Tom Shaw, a Novato resident, is a retired college professor with a doctorate in cultural anthropology and an interest in all things human. Two other members of the West Marin Community Mediation Board, John Levy and Ellen Shehadeh, will speak on KWMR on Aug. 7 at 5:30 p.m., and members will be available to speak with residents at an informational booth at the Inverness Fair on Saturday, Aug. 10. To reach the board, call (415) 459.4036.