Becoming a Mediator
If you’re wondering what it takes to become a mediator, the first thing you should know is that you can declare yourself a mediator and practice as such at will. That is to say, there are no federal or state laws that prohibit the practice of mediation. In this way, mediation is like professional coaching: Anyone can do it. In the immortal words of Huey Lewis, “Don’t need no credit card to ride this train.”
Of course, the same can’t be said for doctors, dentists, pilots, therapists, and attorneys. That’s generally a good thing, as I’m sure you’ll agree the next time you need a colonoscopy or a root canal. Indeed, to practice these professions — medicine, law, etc. — without the requisite license is likely to land you in court facing civil and criminal charges.
So, the practice of mediation is a Wild West of unregulated territory stretching as far as the eye can see. But beware: There’s a quack sheriff in town.
The Certification Myth
The good: A few states (Florida is one example) have created certification programs to establish standards of training and experience by which practitioners can mediate court-referred cases. (In that context, it would certainly be appropriate to describe oneself as, say, “a mediator certified by the Florida Supreme Court”.) But many mediation cases are never referred by court programs. So a Flordia mediator would not have to be certified to mediate non-court-referred cases.
The bad: Mediation trainers frequently advertise their courses of training as certification programs. More often than not, they are nothing other than a class with certificate of attendance issued on completion. If certification means anything, it means achieving a standard — whether evidenced through verification of past accomplishments (as in the Florida certification program above) or through some examination or practicum.
The ugly: In these ways, the terms certification and certified mediator have been horribly confused and abused. New entrants to the field of mediation are understandably confused about the training requirements to practice and the comparative virtues of various training programs. And prospective clients are commonly and intentionally misled through this misrepresentation of credentials when selecting a mediator.
Becoming a Mediator: Am I Credible?
This can be the hardest question that mediators have to ask themselves. At least, it’s hard if the answer is ever in doubt. Clearly, the answer is not in doubt if your resume is littered with relevant credentials, experience, and accomplishments. Maybe you have a juris doctorate, a Ph.D. in psychology, or a graduate degree in conflict studies. Perhaps you’ve also completed one or more classes in mediation and have subsequently honed your skills as a seasoned volunteer community mediator. You might even have conducted several mediations as a private practitioner.
But what if the answer is “No, I’m not credible”, or merely an equivocal “I think I’m credible, but I’m not sure.” In that case, establishing credibility should be your first priority.
Credibility is relational and abstract. It derives not from objective reality. Rather, credibility emerges out of a relationship between two people — specifically, from one person’s preconceived beliefs concerning the other, and from the other’s ability to convey competence. One might say credibility lives at the intersection of prejudice and self-confidence. In other words, credentials count, but credibility grows from the inside out.
What does this mean for you as a mediator? It means you need to be appropriately confident in your skills while also mindful of how others perceive you. A focus on one without the other will not produce credibility.
Developing Your Mediation Skills
If you’re not confident in your skills, practice until you are. At a minimum, take a 40-hour class in mediation that includes several role plays. You’ll find many such classes listed on the National Mediation Training Registry.)
But one class or even several will not prepare you sufficiently for professional mediation. Fortunately, agencies that provide community mediation are now widespread, and these agencies need an army of volunteer mediators to service their caseload. Completion of basic mediation training and perhaps an interview are usually the only requirements to join an agency’s panel. In this way, you can accumulate experience.
The local courts may be another source from which to gain experience. Many states and municipalities have established mediation programs — often staffed by volunteer mediators — for small claims, fair housing, victim-offender, and family cases. Some such programs may be restricted to attorneys or licensed mental health professionals, but others will have lesser requirements.
When seeking case experience, take as many cases as you can manage. Of course, it’s best to gain experience in a variety of case types (child custody, neighbor-to-neighbor, tenant-landlord, etc.), but don’t worry if that proves impracticable.
If you keep your eyes and ears open, you should find opportunities to fortify your mediation skills. Ask for suggestions when you join a regional mediation association or attend some of its events. Ask the people who conduct mediation trainings. Search Google and Yahoo! using keywords like “community mediation [your city]”, “volunteer mediators [your city]”, and “alternative dispute resolution [your city]”. And inquire with your city and local courts for information about their mediation programs.
Finally, if you’re still hungry for case experience, form your own mediation study group. You only need a few like-minded individuals — perhaps four or five fellow students from a class you recently attended and a mediation mentor. Volunteer to host weekly or monthly meetings or rendezvous at a local coffee shop. Spend some time talking about the practice of mediation, but devote the majority of the meeting to mediation role plays. Of course, you’ll need to write your own situations and take turns to play parties and mediators. To get you started, here’s a mediation role play that I wrote for a study group I attended some years ago.
That should be enough to get you going. However, I’ve written more on this topic — including coverage of the attorney question (“Do I need to be one?”) in Mediating for Money: A Field Guide for Professional Mediators.