Mediators are trained in resolving disputes between individuals and groups. Disputes are often stressful to those involved, having a profound impact on finances, work performance, relationships and mental health. A court battle can further compound that stress and lead to long delays while the case is in progress. By working with a mediator, parties can come to a negotiated resolution and avoid lengthy delays.
Mediation is also an effective method to preserve the relationship between disputants, a process that often proves more cost-effective than legal action. As an added benefit, mediation typically allows the participants to retain control of their own decision-making, a distinct advantage that can not always be found in legal proceedings.
A mediator is neutral and does not take sides in a dispute. Instead, the mediator acts as a facilitator and guide for all aspects of the mediation, managing the interaction between the parties through the use of communication techniques. In addition, the mediator performs an evaluative role in that they analyze issues and relevant norms (reality-testing) but does not provide prescriptive advice to the parties (“You should do…”).
The first step of mediation is for the mediator to introduce everyone present, explain their roles and the protocol for the mediation. Then, the disputants are invited to give their opening statements. This is the opportunity for each party to describe their side of the story and its consequences, financial and otherwise, while the other party is allowed to listen and not interrupt. The mediator may encourage the participants to respond to the opening statements, depending on their receptivity, in an effort to further define the issues.
In order to be effective, a mediator must have exquisite communication skills and a firm belief in the ability of people to find solutions to their problems. During a mediation, mediators must be able to listen attentively and give appropriate verbal and non-verbal feedback, affirm, address conflict frames and punctuations, ask questions, examine power dynamics, facilitate conversations, organize and structure discussion and help parties reach resolution.
In addition, mediators must be knowledgeable about the various areas of law that they practice and how they might affect a dispute. Finally, professional mediators must be willing to face the potential risk of civil or criminal liability for their conduct in a mediation. However, such follow-on legal actions are uncommon and can be mitigated by proper training. In fact, some professional associations require mediation trainers to have civil liability insurance in order to participate in their programs. This helps to ensure that the mediators are competent and ethical in their mediation practice. The following is an excerpt from an article written by Assistant Professor Sara McKinnon of the Communication Arts department at the University of New Hampshire. The article discusses how her students learn to become effective mediators by putting on mock conflicts in class. The full article is available here.