Consider this mediation story reported by the Associated Press about a decade ago:
Northampton, Mass. – The city’s attempt at mediating complaints by merchants about ice cream loving motorcyclists gathering outside a Main Street shop had mixed results.
About 40 bikers and 10 merchants, including the owner’s of Bart’s Homemade, sat in a circle and held hands as a mediation firm hired by the city opened the more than two-hour session Tuesday. They came to no resolution.
…”Let them go ahead and arrest me. They won’t convict me,” said Gary Arnold of Northampton, one of the riders who walked [out]. Arnold, a retired telephone lineman, said the last straw was when the group started passing around a feather to designate the speaker.
“I’m not going to sit around like a grade-school kid,” Arnold told Northampton radio station WHMP.
I pass around my copy of the newspaper clipping with this story when I teach a mediation course or seminar, a warning about rote application of new skills.
Every mediator has their own style, their own way of approaching problems, their own favorite tools for the job at hand, yes. But new mediators or mediators with little training will tend to use a tool they were taught, without variation, because that’s the thing they know and not much else. That’s ok, part of the learning cycle.
Over time, with experience, mediators should be able to branch out and begin to understand it’s our job to shape-shift for our clients, not the other way around. Highly experienced, really good mediators will choose approach and tools according to your needs and the specific situation — as we should.
So how do you avoid being like the tough motorcycle guy asked to hold hands and pass the feather? Ask prospective mediators questions like these to assess experience, depth of training and education, and adaptability:
- Do you have approaches or tools you usually use? Tell me about them. You’re looking for answers that convey a complexity of thinking and practice, not rote mimicry.
- Describe for me how your mediations typically unfold — what does it look like? Ask yourself if what they described makes sense for you and your situation. If it doesn’t, ask them…
- Do you vary that approach in circumstances where it may not work as well? Savvy mediators will not be thrown by this question.
- Tell me about the philosophy that guides your work. Look for a fit between what they describe and what feels right to you. If they can’t answer the question, that’s a red flag — it suggests they’ve never thought about it or have too little training to understand that all mediation approaches have underlying values and philosophies.