“The Interrupters”: Lessons for Mediators


I had a chance last week to see The Interrupters – a new documentary about mediators in Chicago who work to reduce gang violence.  The film focuses on three “violence interrupters” who intervene in conflicts before they become violent.  All three work with the organization “CeaseFire,” founded by Gary Slutkin.  Slutkin, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois in Chicago, believes that gang violence is a public health problem and that the spread of violence mimics the spread of disease.  The solution is similar in both cases:  Find those who are most infected and stop the infection at its source.

Critics have said that the film is “riveting” and I would have to agree.  It is fascinating to see, up-close and first-hand, the work done by these brave men and women.  The film also has some lessons for mediators of non-violent conflicts.

Words matter:  Ameena Matthews (in the image above), one of the mediators portrayed, tells us early in the film:  “They say ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me’?  Words will get you killed.”  Even when violence is an unlikely possibility, choice of words – and the respect or disrespect that those words convey – can have a crucial effect on negotiations.  Mediators may need to coach clients about their choice of words and get them to reflect on the possible consequences of those choices.

Credibility is key:  The mediators portrayed in the film can be successful only if they are respected by the people they work among.  Their personal histories, experience with violence, and the force of personality they display all contribute to their credibility.  While “credibility” will mean something different for mediators working with a different clientele (say, Bay Street lawyers rather than youth-at-risk) its importance should not be underestimated.

Gain trust by demonstrating that you understand the client’s perspective:  In a powerful scene, Ameena and some other mediators intervene in a confrontation taking place right outside their offices.  We see her conversation with one of the young men she has just hustled away.  At first, it seems (incongruously) that she is praising him for almost getting involved in a violent conflict:  “You came to protect your family, right?  You came down because your sisters called you?”  We see the point of her strategy later.  The young man is prepared to listen to Ameena when she appeals to his protective impulses:  “How are you going to protect your family if you’re in jail?  How will they cope with that?”

Use the clients’ own values in getting them to think about their actions:  The violence interrupters are not neutral with respect to the outcome of their negotiations.  Their goal, in every case, is to reduce violence and save lives.  One of their techniques (familiar to mediators everywhere) is to get their clients to think about whether their actions are in harmony with the values they express.  We see mediator Cobe Williams working with two brothers who are members of rival gangs.  The brothers claim to love one another, but bicker with one another and with their mother until Cobe wonders (and we wonder) if he can make a breakthrough.  The turning point comes when he asks each brother in turn, “If they [the gang] was coming after your brother, would you protect him?”  When each brother sees the other answer in the affirmative, they seem to realize that their bickering and trash-talking and posturing are out of place.

Listening works:  Many of the people we see involved with CeaseFire are very charismatic.  Tio Hardiman, head of the violence interrupters program, and Ameena Matthews in particular, come across as very strong personalities and powerful, effective orators.  The film contains several splashy scenes of their work and the positive influence they have on others is evident.  Yet the film also contains quieter, yet equally powerful moments, when all the mediator seems to do is maintain his composure and listen, and then demonstrate that he has heard the speaker.  Several times, we see violent impulses drained away as the speaker realizes that his grievance has been heard and understood.