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Co-Mediation: Training Wheels or Obstacle Course?

To borrow from Thomas Jefferson, though I am an old man, I am yet a young mediator.  (Jefferson was talking about gardening.)  After a career in education I began formal study of mediation a few years ago.  I am now happily involved in community mediation, professional organizations, and a developing business among schools.

However, one part of both my training and my community work troubles me.  Why do so many programs begin with or emphasize co-mediation as their basic methodology, or, as one chat group participant called co-mediation, “training wheels for mediators”?  I believe co-mediation is an advanced skill that should be considered a distinct skill, added after solo abilities are at least partly developed.   

Mediation, like classroom teaching, trial law, and probably many other fields, is a complex activity.  Mediators have to pay attention to the words of the parties, their tone, body language, and underlying themes or concerns, as well as their interaction.  At the same time, we are thinking about the moves we’re making or considering,  Finally, we need to monitor our own reactions, potential biases, and other feelings that may help or hinder the process.  As William Ury first said, mediators must be able to go to the balcony, but we must also be on the dance floor with the parties.

Given all this, why do we put two novices together, adding at least one-third more complexity to an otherwise far from simple situation? 

During my own internship, I asked my trainer how she felt about co-mediation.  To my surprise, she said there were only two people she would ever consider co-mediating with. 

Comparisons are dangerous, but I believe mediation is less like cycling than it is like complex athletic activities, such as tennis or rowing.  In both, the skills of singles and doubles are radically different, and athletes learn the basics alone before they try coordinating their movements with a partner. 

In the history of men’s doubles, for example, two pairs stand out: Australian brothers Mark and Todd Woodbridge, and American twins Bob and Mike Bryan, who among them have won over 150 titles including 26 grand slams, two Davis Cups and two Olympic gold medals. Bob Bryan commented at the 2012 Olympics that the twins have spent “30,000 [hours] on the court” together.

It’s often said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a subject, which is a long journey for a mediator.  If a novice’s training is divided among co-mediation and solo mediation, I believe the road to mastery could be significantly extended.

Co-mediation is especially challenging when training under the watchful eye of a coach or evaluator.  Worrying about one’s own performance, the handling of the parties, and the opinions of the mentor, reviewing in your mind all the rules and advice you’ve been given is hard enough: Did I do the introduction right?  Am I being too directive?  Is this an accurate restatement?  Am I showing or feeling any sort of bias?

Why add the extra questions that come up in co-mediation: Am I dominating, or too passive?  Does my partner want to say something?  Did they just make a mistake?  Should I let it go or correct it?  Am I making him or her look bad?  In my own training, my fellow students and I agreed that, though we loved out mentor, we breathed a sigh of relief when he had to cover simultaneous small claims mediations and left us for a while. 

A student teacher assigned to a classroom may observe, take specific parts of a lesson, and eventually develop a class or a unit to teach alone, while the master teacher consults before the fact, observes, and gives feedback.  Rarely, if ever, does the master teacher invite the student to share the front of the room and co-teach.  Nor would two student teachers be asked to co-teach a class before they have led classes on their own.  Even the medical school dictum “Watch one, do one, teach one” doesn’t suggest co-practice by novices, but rather three forms of soloing.

There are obviously situations where co-mediation is helpful.  These might include:

  • When knowledge of the field, the law, the culture(s), or many other contributing factors is necessary, and no one mediator possesses all these skills. 
  • Multiparty cases where simply managing all the individuals involved might be impossible for a single mediator.
  • Lengthy mediations, such as in labor, environmental, or international disputes, which require sharing the load.
  • Clients who view the size of the team as a ratification of their importance or that of their dispute.

Of course, there are those who, like doubles racquet players, have honed their joint skills and prefer teamwork to solo performance.  Such duos may be complementary, with a detail-oriented and a more empathic, holistic member, or may simply be adept at seeing when to play the ball and when to leave it for their partner.  But such pairs are either born, not made, or they’re made through long experience, not a class assignment or a random pairing.


Richard Barbieri

Dr. Richard Barbieri is a board member of the Association for Conflict Resolution and Managing Editor of the journal ACResolution.  He is past president of the New England Association for Conflict Resolution and the Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program. MORE >

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