Having taught mediation skills for over twenty-five years and, more recently, having developed an online mediation training curriculum, it’s only natural that I stand as a zealous proponent of mediation training. It follows then, that I am increasingly alarmed by the number of mediators entering the profession who have little or no training, and even less practical experience. For many of these aspiring mediators, a successful career in law or a certificate from a forty hour introductory course in mediation is held up to the world as documentary proof of their requisite skills.
How did we arrive at this moment in our nascent profession? And, more importantly, how do we build credibility as a profession by emphasizing the importance of high quality education and skills development? As mediators, we operate in a unique professional environment. We come from a variety of different backgrounds, and we apply our skills in a variety of different settings.
We begin with a look back
In the beginning of our profession, we necessarily focused our initial efforts on developing a sustainable career path. The conversation about training requirements, model standards of conduct, and conduct enforcement lagged behind. Despite most mediators agreeing that some degree of training and education was essential as a prerequisite to market entry, there was little consensus around specific requirements. Consequently, we found ourselves in a profession with no national standards for mediators.
Even today, we are left with a patchwork approach to ensuring mediation competency. Few states have training requirements, and those that do, require a minimal number of hours of training. In most states, you need significantly more training to be a licensed barber than a professional mediator. Court annexed programs and some industry associations do slightly better, requiring forty hours of training, plus some mentoring or supervised practice, to be on their approved panel of mediators.
A proliferation of mediation training courses
In this void, we’ve seen the development of a proliferation of mediation training courses. In those states and thinking globally, countries, where the mediation profession has been slower to develop, there is a cottage industry of training programs and certificates. Incredibly, some courses even profess to “certify” students as mediators upon completion, conveniently overlooking that this word has no official meaning in the broader profession.
It’s not my intention to criticize forty hour mediation training programs or downplay the significance for many individuals of having received a certificate upon completion. Indeed, I actively participate in many face-to-face and online programs that promote this same approach to learning. I believe that credentialing oneself is an important first step in career development.
My criticism is with those individuals who seem to think that a forty hour training course, or less in some cases, is all that is required to commence a career in mediation. Because there is limited opportunity for peer review, many untrained mediators look to the final outcome, meaning was the dispute resolved, as the sole litmus test of their performance. To these mediators, the means and methods of how that result was achieved take a distant back seat, and self-reflection is an afterthought, at best.
The need for deeper education and training in mediation
I often look to other industries for examples of where our mediation profession should aspire. For example, many professionals equate the skills required in mediation as similar to those required by practitioners of the therapeutic sciences. It’s interesting, for instance, that to be a licensed clinical therapist, one needs several years of formal education, as well as a year of mentoring under the guidance of a licensed professional, before being allowed to consult with their first patient.
In thinking about the need for deeper education and training in our profession, I am reminded of a statement by Malcomb Gladwell in his book Outliers: “It takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field.” To illustrate the absurdity of minimal training to be proficient in mediation, I often ask my mediation students to envision themselves seated on an airplane and ready to pull back from the gate, when the pilot comes on the public address system and announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to flight 123 to Washington D.C. You’ll be happy to know that I just completed the forty hour course on piloting this new aircraft, and I’m looking forward to our first flight together.” Not exactly confidence inspiring!
And truth be told, there is so much more to be gained from experiential learning than is available through certificate programs alone. I was recently “shadowed” or observed in mediation by a visiting mediator from Columbia, South America. After a long day of mediation, we sat privately to debrief, and I asked what he had learned that day. He responded by saying that he appreciated my use of stories to build a strong connection with the parties. What was even more instructive, he continued, was how seamlessly the stories occurred in conversation and how strategically they were used to help manage difficult moments. He concluded by saying that it was this nuanced use of storytelling that he could never have learned from a book or an introductory course.
Criteria for selecting a mediation course
Since training standards for mediators are not yet in place, what are the important criteria an aspiring mediator should look for in selecting a mediation course or curriculum? I strongly suggest the following focus:
1) Experienced Instructors
Look for programs taught by those instructors with “real world” experience. In a market place of professional trainers, few have the type of practical experience that Malcomb Gladwell would describe as “mastery in the field.” Yet, it is an instructor’s ability to blend theory and practice, while using their rich experience, which bring learning to life.
2) Interactive Learning
Whether face-to-face or online, look for those programs that are interactive and afford opportunities for experiential learning. We know from neurobiology that true learning comes from experience, including failure. All too often, introductory courses are long on lectures with limited opportunities to incorporate practical skills.
Mediation skills are consistent across a variety of disciplines. Therefore, training in one area of skill development may be easily transferable to a different application. That’s why a student of mine once took a job in a nursing home to improve his listening skills, since he knew he would need to listen carefully to his patients. Don’t overlook any quality program that will expand your thinking and skill development, whether in communication, neurobiology, body language, or online mediation.
4) Approval by a state bar association or other credible institution
Look for mediation courses that have been approved by a state bar association or other credible institution, or that are offered through a credible institution. That is a practical means of guaranteeing their quality.
Learning is an ongoing endeavor
Once you have immersed yourself in mediation coursework and have gained an appropriate number of certificates for your office wall, let the education continue. Look for opportunities to “shadow” experienced mediators and debrief with them afterwards to learn why they made specific decisions in a given moment. Practice skills in a “role play” environment because your brain can’t distinguish between “real life” scenarios and authentic practice using “role plays.” Volunteer for dispute resolution experiences.
Once your career is underway, never stop learning. Form groups of local mediators and share experiences. Keep notes of your own experiences and debrief yourself following every mediation. Ask experienced mediators to periodically peer review your efforts.
Only through high quality mediation training can we continue to build credibility as a profession. Only by acknowledging that certificate programs are an important first step, but only a first step, can we help our mediation clients distinguish between those in our profession who are “certified” from those that are truly competent. As one of my colleagues at JAMS was fond of saying, “The sparrow may tell himself he is a peacock, but the peacock knows the difference.”
The exalted goal of mediation training was perhaps best captured on the television program 60 Minutes during an interview with Misty Copeland, the first African American ballerina to dance for a premier dance company. When the interviewer observed that Misty’s dancing appeared “effortless,” she quickly replied, “I’ve spent a lifetime of effort making this look effortless.”
Before you ever set foot in a mediation room, commit to that same level of preparation. Then, when the stage lights are on, you will possess the necessary skills to competently assist those in conflict. And in so doing, you will represent the best of our profession.