Steep Path Awaits New Practitioners In Field


by Jennifer Thomas-Larmer

This article originally appeared in the January 1998 issue of Consensus, a newspaper published jointly by the Consensus Building Institute and the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program.

Stephanie Moura has come a long way. Just five years ago, she landed her first job in the dispute resolution field -- as an actor. Moura played the role of a disputing party in simulated mediations, testing the mettle of prospective mediators for the Massachusetts court system. She was paid $6 an hour. "I got to burst into tears and throw fits," she says. "It was great."

Today Moura is a senior associate with The Mediation Group (TMG), a nonprofit organization in Brookline, Mass., outside Boston. She makes considerably more than $6 an hour and has served as a neutral intervenor in everything from insurance claims cases to state-level consensus-building dialogues.

The path from that inauspicious first job to success as an up-and-coming practitioner was not easy for Moura, nor is it for anyone trying to get established in the public dispute resolution field. To succeed, a practitioner must have both process skills and substantive knowledge, as well as the right temperament and a healthy dose of political savvy. Fortunately, there are proven methods for learning the trade. And the benefits, in terms of job satisfaction, can be very high.

Consensus asked several practitioners with two-to-six years experience in dispute resolution what kinds of work they are doing and how they are learning the trade. At this stage in their careers, all are gradually increasing the size of the groups they facilitate and the complexity of the projects they manage.

Stephanie Moura, 36, The Mediation Group

Moura has accumulated a good deal of facilitation, mediation, and training experience in her five years at TMG, despite working as a self-described "Jane-of-all-trades" for the first few years. In her most challenging project to date, Moura won the contract for TMG and then facilitated a 70-person, two-day meeting in Anchorage, Alaska to discuss marine-resource management. She was also one of four mediators who managed and facilitated an 18-month, TMG-managed consensus-building process on the issue of sewage sludge management in New York State.

Moura got the TMG position after she met Brad Honoroff, a principal at TMG, through her "acting" job. Honoroff offered Moura a part-time position doing marketing, and promised she could apprentice as a mediator. Before long, she was doing just that.

Moura admits it's a challenge being a young, female intervenor in the mediations that involve men a generation older. But she says she's learned how to handle it. "I run the tape in my head. I tell myself, 'I am able to help them,'" she explains. "You have to avoid the trap of being intimidated."

Dennis Clark, 28, Triangle Associates

Dennis Clark, a bright, young practitioner at the for-profit Triangle Associates in Seattle, Wash., works on a variety of public participation, mediation, and facilitation projects. In his first role as project manager, Clark recently facilitated a public involvement effort associated with the siting and design of a waste-transfer and recycling station on Vashon Island in Puget Sound. He's also involved in the negotiation of a Habitat Conservation Plan for salmon on a stretch of the Columbia River, although he's taking a more junior role on that high-profile project.

Clark landed in the dispute resolution field almost by mistake. He was working towards his master's in public administration, and needed money. A contact on the University of Washington campus referred him to Triangle, which was able to hire him inexpensively through a work-study program (the school reimbursed Triangle 55 percent of his salary). After Clark earned his degree in 1994, he joined Triangle full-time.

Clark is the youngest associate Triangle ever hired -- and the only man in the company. He insists the gender issue has never posed a problem, but he admits his age can make it hard for him to put clients at ease and exercise authority in front of a group. He credits his colleagues with helping him work through these challenges. In fact, he knows he wouldn't make it on his own in this field. "It's hard to hang up your shingle at age 28 and say, 'Hey, I'm a mediator!'" he says. "They just won't beat a path to your door."

Tim Hicks, 47, CONCUR

Tim Hicks is one rising practitioner who is trying to make it largely on his own. His age and business experience help. He's succeeding, he says, "by being really eclectic." So eclectic that he has to carry three different business cards.

Since early 1996, Hicks has been an associate with Concur, a California-based organization specializing in natural-resource and land-use disputes. Hicks works with Concur only on a project-by-project basis, which means more than half his time is spent doing other types of mediation -- primarily divorce, family, and business cases -- out of his home office in Sebastopol, Calif., where he bases his own organization, Resolution Resources.

Hicks has a deep passion for both the theory and the practice of mediation, and he has helped facilitate and manage an interesting array of public projects. This past year he did stakeholder outreach for and co-facilitated, with Concur principal Scott McCreary, an eight-month consensus-building process involving the relicensing of a hydroelectric dam. He's also helped to facilitate and manage a land-use planning process in Napa County.

Hicks entered the field from the business world. For eight years he and his wife owned HearthSong, a mail-order toy company. "With a staff of 100 to 125 at any given time," Hicks says, "you're confronted every day with the challenges of group decision-making." After selling the business in 1990, Hicks began searching for a way to make a living as a mediator. He seems to have found it.

Although practitioners we interviewed do a various types of work and came into the field through different avenues, they are learning the trade in similar ways. All are going through what Alice Shorett, president of Triangle Associates, calls a "staging process" -- a step-by-step increase in responsibilities and client contact.

Shorett says most facilitators begin by taking notes at meetings and writing meeting summaries. They then progress to recording notes on flipcharts in front of a group. The next step is to begin facilitating small meetings, generally with a senior mediator present. Gradually, then, the size of the meetings and the complexity of the processes can increase, while the involvement of the senior partner decreases. Eventually, emerging practitioners are prepared to manage a small project.

For such journeyman practitioners, the opportunity to learn directly from an experienced practitioner during this staging process is essential. "Perhaps the single most important thing [in my professional development] has been learning from my colleagues," says Clark. "I learn a lot by watching how [they] do things."

Moura concurs: "I can't emphasize enough how important it is to have mentors who care about your development and give you good opportunities to learn."

Likewise, Hicks credits McCreary with helping him break into the environmental dispute resolution arena. On every project, McCreary and Hicks work together to develop meeting agendas, facilitate meetings, and brainstorm process strategies.

McCreary and the other senior practitioners say it is the gradual nature of this learning process, combined with the close supervision and guidance, that helps them ensure they're delivering the best possible services to their clients.

Formal mediation training is also standard for practitioners on the ascend. Hicks estimates he's been through 400 hours of training covering both process and substance, including courses given by William Lincoln, of the National Center Associates in Tacoma, Wash., and Concur.

Clark went through formal training at both Triangle Associates and the Institute for Cultural Affairs in Phoenix. "I benefited a lot from both of those trainings," Clark says. "I still refer to those materials."

Moura suggests that early-career practitioners can do also much to help each other learn. "I strongly encourage new people . . . to forge networks with each other, talk with each other," she says.

Clark, Moura, and Hicks all have advanced degrees, which may be a prerequisite for success in the field. In January 1997 Consensus reported that 34 percent of dispute resolution practitioners surveyed held a master's degree, 27 percent a law degree, 24 percent a Ph.D., and 1 percent an M.B.A. Only 14 percent held a bachelor's degree alone.

Even if an early-career practitioner gets the right education and goes through all these steps to learn the trade, he or she still may not succeed. "Not everyone is skilled in the right ways," says Shorett. "Not everyone is capable of doing it."

What does she think is required? "An ability to listen and hear varying viewpoints," she says. "The ability to write clearly and to express things verbally. A liberal arts kind of mindset."

She values someone who is an independent thinker and who can see things from both a process and a substance point of view.

Honoroff thinks it's also important that a mediator "be able to ... take the heat out of a situation, whether it be through humor or distraction or some other means."

The ability to learn quickly and work on a variety of substantive issues is also a plus. Moura has worked on a wide range of issues, not just those in the environmental field, where her expertise lies. "I've had to give up the somewhat naive notion I had when I began," she explains, "that I could find work all the time in environmental dispute resolution, and, in particular, in marine and coastal environmental dispute resolution."

For those who have what it takes, the dispute resolution field offers satisfying and flexible careers.

"Most of my work is connected to the environment, quality of life, natural resource management," says Clark, "all stuff I care a lot about." In addition, Clark has arranged with Triangle to work less than the typical 40 hours per week. In theory, this allows him to spend more time hiking and doing volunteer work, although he concedes he's been working essentially full time lately. But "the pay isn't bad," he says. Hicks is not fond of the financial ups and downs that come with working freelance, but he's certain he made the right career move. "I love mediation. It's such a creative endeavor," he says. "The lifestyle is great. I love the variety and flexibility in the work." For those who have the patience to learn the trade step-by-step, it appears the payoffs are high.



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