I train mediators. The longest course I'm currently involved in is a nine day training for family mediators. The programme includes a considerable degree of content – around children's issues, legal knowledge, screening for domestic abuse, etc. In addition it covers the fundamental mediation model, core principles and key skills. I also deliver a workplace mediation training which is six days – as there is less specific content.
I believe both of these programmes are well-designed and well delivered. They cover the relevant information. They provide opportunities to practice via role-plays. They incorporate off-course study and assignments. There's constructive feedback throughout.
So the question is, do these courses turn participants into mediators? And the short answer is, of course not. Mediation isn't some mechanical process. All the research points to the primacy of the practitioner's ability to 'do the right thing at the right time' rather than slavishly following a prescribed model. Mediation is a way of seeing, thinking and responding. One of the main functions of the initial training is to introduce the trainees to the existence of 'mediator consciousness'.
Mediators think differently from non-mediators. They can invite participation, but never compel. They can articulate the problem, but have no power to sort it out. They have to stay inwardly quiet to hear the unspoken fears and needs that lurk beneath the bluster and rhetoric. They hold faith with the efficacy of genuine interest and empathetic imagination. Mediators learn to use their feelings like a tuning fork, so they can pick up emotional vibrations and turn these back into conversation.
To do all of this successfully, mediators need continual practice in ‘tuning their instruments’, so that they remain sensitive to the subtle shifts in power and capacities for dialogue and negotiation. And they need the courage to translate what they see and hear into the useful questions, reflections and feedback that might enable the parties to move forward.
Is all of this possible in six to nine days? I sincerely hope not. I say that as someone who has been mediating for nearly twenty years. Mediation is much closer to an art than a science – and there is always more to learn.
So what does the training equip someone to do? If the training is any good, participants will emerge with three important discoveries:
- They will know the difference between how mediators see the world as compared to other professionals (including therapists, solicitors, and HR practitioners). There will be a clear recognition that mediation entails a shift in both awareness and agency. Mediators must bring their full selves to the work, while simultaneously knowing that they are always the least important people in the room. Neophyte mediators may not always be able to access this kind of knowing perception, but they must be able to recognise when they are doing something other.
- They will come off the course with enough confidence and courage so that when the call comes the following Tuesday to sit in the mediator’s chair – they won’t suddenly find an excuse to opt out. They know full well that they (like all of us) are still far from the finished article, but they have some skills and some knowledge – certainly more than the parties. They also know that conflict is neither inevitable nor irresolvable. And they bring into the room the intention to be helpful, along with the belief that mediation can make a difference. This is different from thinking yourself as an expert. It’s about embodying a sense of optimism and offering people an opportunity to do the necessary work.
- Last, but not least, training should instil in participants the desire to learn more. That in a certain sense, their real training begins when they sit with actual clients or parties – who will always be their best teachers. Mediators should have the intention of sucking every last drop of learning from every session they are fortunate enough to be involved in. Review, reflect, read. Spend time talking with colleagues, generate lists of questions and quandaries, try to unearth all the unhelpful assumptions and judgments that interfere with your best work. Constantly seek to deepen your practice.
As a trainer, I let my trainees know that these are the real criteria that indicate success or failure of the training. Can they think like mediators, be confident enough to respond to the call, be humble enough to learn from the work?
So can we make a mediator in five, six, nine days of training? That’s actually the wrong question. The question is whether we are honest enough to say what any initial training can actually provide – and be clear about the work (and rewards) that lie ahead.