I am about to split hairs. But it’s for a good cause.
I’m going to split hairs because I want to create a quick reference guide to which I can point people who contact me about (1) hiring me as their mediator, (2) hiring a mediator in general, and (3) becoming a mediator. Since public and media use of the term “mediator” can mean anything from mediator to facilitator to arbitrator to negotiator, I want to propose a common language to share with people discussing this work with me.
And since professional mediators, a group to which I belong, also vary in how they use the term “mediator” and have sometimes biting (!) disagreements about who is a “real” mediator and who is not, I want to help would-be mediators have a broad understanding of the term.
When I’m teaching basic or advanced mediation to my graduate students or as a mediation trainer, I begin with the difference between “big M” and “little m” mediation.
“Big M” Mediators
In my field, most people calling themselves professional Mediators are using what I call the “Big M” meaning of the word. They employ a very specific process to help people negotiate a settlement to their dispute. This process typically begins with an opening statement, ends with a written agreement (if one was achieved) and a closing statement, and what happens between those bookends depends on what the “school” or style of mediation in which they were trained.
What happens between the bookends can look quite different from mediator to mediator, yet “big M” Mediators would all generally tell you that they employ a specific process to help disputing parties.
“Little m” mediators
There is a different way to define mediation. One well-regarded definition, and my personal favorite, is Friends Conflict Resolution Program Jennifer Beer and Eileen Stief’s version: “Any process for resolving disputes in which another person helps parties negotiate a settlement.” It’s that phrase “any process” that I care about.
In my 2008 book for mediators, I distinguished “big M” and “little m” mediation by saying that “little m” mediation is akin to being a mediative influence on people’s disputes. I said, “There are lots of reasons we choose to be mediators, and most of them have little to do with the formal process we call Mediation,” by which I meant that most mediators become so because we want to help people resolve conflict, not because we want to be devoted to a single formal process that starts with an opening statement and ends with a closing statement and has specific steps in between.
“Little m” mediators employ a number of processes and discrete problem-solving skills to resolve conflict, help people negotiate better, and solve problems; and we use our professional experience and judgment to determine which approach serves best in each circumstance. “Big M” mediation is a subset of “little m” mediation in the eyes of mediators like me.
Why I’m a “little m” mediator all of the time and a “Big M” Mediator some of the time
There are Mediators who would consider the employment of that single process the only true mark of a mediator. I’m not among them.
As you consider hiring a mediator to help you navigate the conflict you are facing, understand that dispute resolution professionals mean different things by the word “mediation” and the type of help they provide you will go accordingly.
Here’s why I consider myself a “little m” mediator first and foremost, and a “big M” mediator only when it makes sense:
- Over-commitment to a one-size-must-fit-all process means that your conflict must be shaped to fit that process, instead of the other way around. Your conflict, your needs and the setting in which the conflict is unfolding should determine the process the mediator uses. Period.
- I need the freedom to use my skilled, experienced professional judgment as I work with you so that your needs, not my devotion to a single process, stay front and center. Sometimes, my judgment will be that I should Mediate. Other times, coaching, facilitating, training, or consulting would be a better fit. Still others, a hybridized packaging of my discrete skills into a whole new animal with no formal name is what will serve you, your organization or your family best.
- The term “Mediation” is slowly being adjunctified into the practice of law, as more and more attorneys join the ranks of professional mediators. There’s an important place for court-affiliated Mediation, yet the vast majority of the important conflict in your life, your organization, and your family will never unfold in court or through attorneys – because it shouldn’t, doesn’t need to, or doesn’t make sense to. In those instances, you need a “little m” mediator as skilled in untangling states of conflict and tension as in resolving a concrete dispute.
By the way, I’ll be talking more about this at February’s Southeastern Conflict Management Conference in Nashville, TN.