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Mediator – Know Thyself! (Part II)

Distance Family Mediation by Susanna Jani

In last week’s post, Kari Boyle, Executive Director of Mediate BC Society, raised the topic of mediator competence and the need for self-awareness to guide one’s decisions about whether one has sufficient knowledge and experience to act as a mediator in a given case. Today, she tackles the important question of how a mediator can improve his or her own self-awareness and competence:

Issues of competence are not limited to the mediation field, of course. Jordon Furlong’s recent blog post, “CPD and the Presumption of Competence”, notes that a license to practice law does not necessarily mean the lawyer is competent and that continuing professional development rules only require you to “show up” and fail to actually test or prove competence.

So just what does mediator competence mean and how does a mediator both improve self-knowledge about competence gaps and seek to improve competence in those areas?

Competence in the field of conflict resolution involves a deep understanding of conflict, ethics and process and depends on the mediator’s cognitive as well as emotional intelligence. Thankfully, there are lots of opportunities these days for mediators to participate in meaningful advanced professional development regarding mediation. Mediators should take advantage of these opportunities to expand their understanding of the field and to practice skills as much as possible.

An often debated issue is the extent to which mediators need knowledge and experience in the subject matter of the parties’ dispute (an engineering background in a construction dispute for example). The cautious answer is probably that “it depends” – on the situation, the type of case and the needs of the parties.

Some counsel say that they prefer to have a mediator with “subject matter expertise” but that may be code for their cultural preference for evaluative mediation (a topic for another series of blog posts!). Other counsel and some parties prefer mediators who are process experts and who call in the subject matter experts as required. Still others say that a combination of the two is sometimes appropriate but that subject matter expertise is highly over-rated (possibly since it is rare to find an expert in the required area who also possesses the necessary expertise and experience in how to conduct an effective mediation). See Nancy Kramer’s helpful tips on selecting a mediator here.

Improving self-awareness is more challenging. It is true that “we don’t know what we don’t know”. Left to our own devices we may indeed be missing things. In addition to ongoing practical professional development it is important to take opportunities to check in with our colleagues and other dispute resolution practitioners. Counter-intuitively, while mediation is all about collaboration, mediating can be isolating work – it is very important to find safe and convenient ways of sharing experiences and expertise. Other ways to improve self-awareness include seeking out coaches or mentors, asking for feedback from an observer, participating in co-mediation and learning about how to develop a reflective mediation practice. Striving for increased self-awareness will help with competence but it will also assist in deepening our own experience of mediation.

There are many excellent written resources on these topics. These are just a few:

For more about self-awareness and the interrelationship between ethics, emotional intelligence and self awareness I invite you to review Louise Phipps Senft’s articles, “Mediator Excellence and Self-Awareness” and “The Interrelationship of Ethics, Emotional Intelligence and Self Awareness”.
For a primer on reflective practice take a look at Judy Cohen’s article, “Reflective Practice: How Veterans Can Benefit from Rookie Training”.


Susanna Jani

For a decade, Susanna Jani was Roster Administrator for the B.C. Mediator Roster Society*, managing its day-to-day operations, activities and projects, including the initial research phase of the Distance Family Mediation Project. In 2009, she followed her passion for this environmentally-friendly project and became Project Coordinator for its second, pilot… MORE >

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