The Enduring Value of the Mediation Skillset

During Conflict Resolution Week in October, Mediate BC Roster mediators made a number of presentations around the province about mediation. We tried to answer the public’s question: “What is Mediation?” That seems like a simple task – it is not.

First, “mediation” is not just one thing. It is a flexible tool that includes a variety of processes. Some practitioners have tried to catalogue the processes and to assign names (interest-based, facilitative, transformative, narrative, evaluative, rights-based, joint, shuttle, etc.). From the perspective of the people in conflict, each of these processes will look very different and the role of the mediator will vary significantly. This has advantages and disadvantages. It is useful to have a toolbox filled with a variety of tools that a skilled person can match to the situation and the needs of the parties. On the other hand, it makes “mediation” very difficult to explain.

Second, mediation training focuses on knowledge, process and skills. The expected mediator skillset is becoming a rich collection of communication and conflict resolution skills as well as a solid understanding of psychology, sociology, neuroscience, leadership etc. This underlying skillset is obviously useful in mediation but it is also key to a number of other related processes including facilitation, conciliation, med/arb, conflict coaching, conflict audits and conflict resolution system design. It also supports expertise in processes which have not typically been associated with mediation: community consultation, collaborative practice, deliberative democracy, appreciative inquiry, social innovation labs……etc. Are these things also “mediation”?

Some practitioners are coming to the view that is it time to reframe both what mediation is and the role of the “mediator”.

I had the pleasure of meeting Peter Adler in 2009 when he came to Vancouver to lead a one-day workshop entitled “The Future of Mediation: The end as we know it?” This provocative title riffed on his article for called “The End of Mediation: A Ramble on Why the Field will Fail and Mediators Will Thrive over the Next Two Decades!” Five year later he has written another fascinating article called “Predicting the Future of Mediation” building on these previous themes.

He acknowledges the difficulty of defining “mediation”:

“Mediation. Tougher. Why? Because mediation (a) isn’t a discrete “thing”; (b) what it is sits in the eye of the beholder and we beholders do very different things; and (c) the perfections we associate with our own particular gospels of mediation are perpetually marred by the contrary truths held by others who are just as smart, experienced, and knowledgeable as we are. You might as well ask what the future of “beauty” or “truth” is. Its that kind of problem.”

He calls mediation a “container” into which people pour all of the different processes I listed above (and more) which “makes for a strange concoction, some kind of lemon-chocolate-vanilla-strawberry-pumpkin dessert that is a sponge cake, a cheesecake, and a chicken potpie.”

When asked to predict the future of mediation Peter Adler’s view is that the future for the underlying skillset is very bright. This skillset is essential in order to address the increasingly complex and dynamic problems we face in the world today (including climate change, water crises, severe income disparity etc.). The future of the individual “categories” of mediation we have used to date – not so certain.

Perhaps the key is to remember the flexibility and adaptability of the underlying skillset, which has manifested itself into a variety of things we have called “mediation” as well as a number of other related but different processes. The public benefits by being able to access a wider range of options. Those with mediation skills benefit if they can look outside of their own “mediation box” and consider how they can apply those skills to other approaches.

Our exploration of the Social Lab as a way to close the implementation gap for family justice reform, has revealed how valuable the mediation skillset is to encourage effective collaboration, to interpret the world from a variety of different perspectives, to engage with those both within and outside of the “system”, to value curiosity and learning, and to do joint problem-solving.

Peter Adler’s article ends with an important comment: “..we will not be running out of disputes and brouhahas and ever more innovative and protean ways to work with them.” It doesn’t really matter what you call the process itself – as long as it is designed to uniquely meet the needs of the situation and the parties and involved skilled people to guide and assist. Those with a firm base of mediation skills should have lots of opportunities to use them.

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