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A Mediator’s View on Success

Like you, I would rather feel that I am doing a good job when I mediate.

It is easy to see mediation’s successes in improved communication skills, high settlement rates, positive client reviews, savings in time, money and acrimony, reduced court dockets, a steady stream of referrals, or a mediator’s healthy bank account. Can mediators be considered successful, though, if no agreement results or the participants wait until the mediation is over to settle the matter on their own? As this article will show, my view is that one should develop his or her opinion about a mediator’s successes gradually by considering the question from both internal and external perspectives.

My assessment process begins with a description of what mediation is, what it’s for, and what the mediator’s role should be. Next, I try to reconstruct the reasons behind using mediation in a particular instance. Lastly, I step back and see what I did and didn’t do during the mediation. By comparing my self-evaluation with my stated ideal and my understanding of what the particular mediation was about, I can develop a sense of how well I did.

My primary goal in mediation is to facilitate the participants’ realization of genuine and lasting change. By starting with an internal focus, I find it easier to remain rooted in my commitment to building a process by which the parties become able to make that change. My intent is that my work will arise from an increasingly clear understanding of who I am and how I practice so that I am able to convene appropriately matched tools within a setting that supports the participants’ success. Later, I can expand my attention outward to consider my role in relationship to the participants, the issues, others’ expectations of the mediation, and the outcome.

Once I am ready to go beyond my internal experiences of the mediation and my role, I look to see whether I:

  • Gathered enough information before mediation started to know how the process should be structured;

  • Structured the process so that the participants could gain a full understanding of their needs in relationship to the subject of the mediation;

  • Supported each participant to feel safe within a balanced process, and valued for his or her contributions to a resolution of the conflict;

  • Kept a place in the process for considering the needs of those who are affected by the conflict but not present during the mediation (such as children if this is a family or parenting dispute, or members of a group whose interests are represented by delegates if this is, for example, an employment, community, or environmental dispute);

  • Helped model or teach effective communication, problem solving and preventive conflict resolution skills;

  • Held realistic expectations for the possible results of the process;

  • Contributed to a leveling or de-escalation of the conflict; and,

  • Encouraged discussion about how to make the agreement work throughout the period of any ongoing relationship.

Several years ago, I set out to describe the essential factors influencing my views on mediation. After much thought, many conversations with colleagues, and a lot of reading, I concluded that mediation is a context, or (per our good friend Webster) “a weaving together of words, the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs.” Consequently, I measure my success by the degree to which my efforts build a context that supports the participants to succeed in understanding the problem and planning for what they want to happen next.

However you define mediation and the mediator’s role, many of us conclude that achieving success in this work is a journey. For me, this journey includes getting better at convening the tools and crafting the contexts that will predispose the participants’ efforts to succeed in planning for a preferred future.

Although measuring a mediator’s success in practicing their craft is likely to be a fuzzy process at times, it seems important to do if we will be able to grow as practioners, or advance the field as a whole. As you take time to consider your own successes, I suggest that you find ways you can play to your own strengths as a mediator by building on that which you are already doing well. The rest can then fall away or be re-worked more easily—thereby bringing you even more success!

Mimi E. Lyster began her work as a mediator, facilitator, trainer, strategic planning consultant and policy analyst in 1981, and authored the book “Child Custody: Building Parenting Agreements That Work,” Nolo Press, (1995, 1996, 1999).


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