Beginning difficult conversations: an analysis of opening statements in Victim Offender Mediation/Dialogue

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Szmania, Susan J.

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In this dissertation, I provide a discourse analysis of mediators, victims, and offenders’ opening statements in the Victim Offender Mediation/Dialogue (VOMD) program in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. VOMD is available to willing victims of violent crime who would like to meet with their convicted offenders with the aid of a mediator. Previous research indicates that participants are satisfied with the process and outcome of this newly emerging type of mediation, but little research has addressed the communication in these difficult conversations. A general practical question motivates this discourse-centered analysis: how do participants begin the Mediation/Dialogue sessions? Drawing from grounded practical theory, the analysis addresses two levels. First, at the technical level, I use action-implicative discourse analysis to transcribe participants’ opening statements in five cases. Second, at the problem level, I investigate the tensions that are inherent in initial moments of the dialogue, both at an institutional level and at an interpersonal level. The technical level finds that the participants in five cases display prosocial communicative practices in their opening statements. Mediators employ both procedural and orientational features that orient the participants to the ideology and process of the mediation session. Victims acknowledge the offender, equalize their position with the offender, discuss their spirituality, and may also express forgiveness to the offender in their opening statements. Offenders begin by talking about the difficulty of engaging in the mediation session, discussing their identity in relation to their crime, offering an apology, and responding to the victims’ forgiveness when forgiveness is granted. Taken together, the communicative practices of the mediators, victims and offenders offer a normative assessment of how to balance the competing tensions inherent at the problem level and display how to successfully open these difficult conversations. The conclusion of the dissertation focuses especially on the sequence of forgiveness and apology in the opening statements and suggestions for future research. Ultimately, this analysis calls for continued communicative analysis of the discourse in restorative justice programs such as the Texas VOMD program.