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Co-Mediation in A Volunteer Co-Mediation Process. Some Simple Ideas

A Little Context: In my work as a volunteer mediator in in both court referred cases and divorce and family cases, have been “paired” with a co-mediator.  Apart from the divorce work, I often have just enough time to say hello, talk briefly about working,” cross my fingers” and “jump on in.” 

The Challenge of the Pairing Approach to Co-Mediation

The “pairing approach” in short term work such as summary process and small claims may be bumpy but at least it is short.  If the volunteers are part of a cohort with many familiar faces and there are facilitated processes and learning sessions after engagements, there may be opportunities to debrief and to learn about oneself and about working with others.  However, the “pairing approach” can be more challenging in longer term engagements, such as working with a couple in conflict, with work teams, with a family trying to make difficult decisions, etc.   In these instances, the connections between the co-mediators -their styles, listening and summarizing skills, their tempos and rhythms coupled with their comfort with anger, conflict, and silences and knowing when and how to intervene become even more crucial in our capacity to effectively do our job.

The Value of Effective Co-Mediation

The good news for those of us who come to mediation with past experiences in human and team dynamics as well as working with co-facilitators, partners or co-consultants with whom we have had long term relationships is that we appreciate the richness of two perspectives, the value of interventions different from our own and the chance to plan and to process together to enhance learning and creativity.  These relationships require time to develop.  Making a commitment to the process, the ability to manage feedback, honesty and openness to exploration and skills in honoring our differences is central to the process  

Opportunities to Learn to Work Together?

The value of two perspectives is part of the bedrock of the co-mediation model, yet so far, I have not read much about training co-mediators in the art of mediating together.  Most of the training courses from the required introductory courses to in specialty areas do not spend significant time on “how to co-mediate effectively” in both short and longer-term engagements.  Most of us muddle through and over time may be fortunate to be paired multiple times with partners we have learned to work with and who we respect and enjoy.

Simple Thought Number One: The Learning Loop

  1. We don’t know what we don’t know.  Therefore, it is possible that many volunteers know a lot about the mediation process but don’t know how co-mediators experience working with them.  And vice versa.
  2. We may know what we don’t know.  Therefore, we try to “fill in the blanks,” sometimes successfully and sometimes making mistakes.
  3. Mistakes are great.   A chance to learn.
  4. So are successes.  Another chance to learn.
  5. BUT without a learning loop we never learn what we don’t know, and we never learn if we are being successful or making mistakes. 

Simple Thought Number Two: A Template

  1. Spend at least 15 minutes talking with each other before starting a case in a “short term” mediation and at least 45 minutes before beginning a “longer” term mediation.  
  2. Share Simple Thought Number One with your co-mediator.
  3. Ask each other about how they see their strengths and weaknesses and opportunities for growth.
  4. Explore their past experiences with other co-mediators and what went well and what they wished had been different.  Look for examples and specificity. 
  5. Agree to identify moments during the upcoming session when you were pleased with how your mediating partner addressed certain issues and why and when you wished he/she would have done something differently and why.    
  6. Agree to debrief for at least 15-30 minutes about rhythm and tempo, amount of “air- time,” styles, listening and summarizing skills, comfort with anger, conflict, silence, and skills in interventions.  
  7. Make some commitments to try a few new approaches the next time.
  8. Agree to be honest, kind, supportive and “stay in the conversation.”

A More Complicated Thought: Training and Education

  1. Identify best practices among volunteer training programs that focus on learning how to co-facilitate.
  2. Using these and other resources, develop modules to introduce and practice techniques to effectively communicate prior to and after sessions. 
  3. Create on-going supervision/sharing sessions for volunteer mediators, preferably 5-6 times a year for presenting cases, reflecting on co-mediation communications skills and processing,  sharing techniques, and learning, and teaching advanced skills.

Conclusion:  Self As Instrument

Mediation is a human, not mechanistic process.  As practitioners who are intervening in human systems, we use our “self” to do what we do.  Our self is the instrument and the greater our knowledge of ourselves in relationship to others, the more successful we will be.


Deborah Heller

Deborah Heller, PhD is a volunteer mediator in Boston and Cambridge Massachusetts. Prior to retirement, she was a partner in HellerCunningham, an organization development company working with both for profit and non-profit organizations focusing on strategy, leadership, team development, and building organizational strength. MORE >

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