Professionals Who Mediate: Who are They and How Do They Differ from Professional Mediators?
People from multiple backgrounds, fields, disciplines, and walks of life must utilize mediation skills to address informal, everyday conflicts among the people they lead, work and live with, and serve. Mediation skills are broadly applicable, and individuals can and do informally mediate conflict situations in a broad array of contexts. In The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop (2000), William Ury states:
We may not think of it as mediation, but that is what we are doing whenever we listen attentively to people in dispute, when we ask them about what they really want, when we suggest possible approaches, and when we urge them to think hard about the costs of not reaching agreement [p. 145].
For Jennifer Beer and Caroline Packard, authors of The Mediator’s Handbook (2012), “[m]ediation isn’t esoteric.”
[P]eople from all walks of life and with all types of education can learn to be effective mediators: coaches, clergy, managers and supervisors, politicians, social workers, principals, crew leaders, parents, police, teachers, board members, therapists, teenagers, small business owners, elders, barbers – anyone who helps settle conflicts in their own corner of the world [p.6].
Kenneth Cloke notes that the specific nature of a dispute requires a mediator who can encourage trust and possesses “an ability to decode the subtle meanings of specialized forms of communication between the parties” (2003, p. 53). This means:
In conflicts involving teenagers, for example, it is clear that the most effective personal quality of the mediator may be being a teenager oneself. . . . According to this calculus, an angry, illiterate drug addict off the street could make a better mediator in certain kinds of conflict than a reasoned, respected jurist [Cloke, 2003, p. 53].
Even so, the term “mediator” is often more narrowly associated with a subset of professionals who have received specialized training and certification to serve in specific roles, such as individuals serving as court-certified mediators within their state (Court-Certified Mediator Requirements by State, 2021). The wealth of resources, literature, and support in the form of training, certification and ongoing development is focused on mediators in these contexts. Calls to “professionalize the profession” through standardizing mediation practice, professional responsibilities, and credentialing are similarly focused on mediators in specialized areas (Le Goff, 2020). While this is responsive to the growing demand for mediation and conflict resolution services, is it too limiting? Does it send a message that helping others address everyday conflicts, as people do in their workplaces, communities, and businesses – every day – doesn’t count as mediation? Do these would-be mediators not warrant attention and support to be successful?
Mediating in a professional context involves an entirely different career path than mediating as a responsibility within a job or simply out of a desire to help others. Both paths matter. While the former involves an investment of effort, time, and expense to qualify within a chosen field or specialty, the latter is an equally valid human endeavor. In fact, a case could be made for greater needs and greater opportunities to mediate in the contexts highlighted in the quotes above.
For many, becoming a full-time professional mediator involves a climb to a summit never realized. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, growth for “arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators” is projected at 6 percent between 2021 and 2031. Though about average compared to other occupations, it is relatively small in terms of the number of professionals engaged in the field with only 500 openings projected each year during that 10-year period. The Bureau’s reference is to the legal context for mediation or to contract situations involving “clauses requiring mediation or arbitration to resolve complaints and disputes.” Opportunities may be further limited due to budgetary constraints that limit growth in state and local government where many mediators, arbitrators, and conciliators work.
Mediation is often only a portion of a professional mediator’s full-time effort, such as the lawyer in private practice who mediates some but spends more time representing clients in other capacities. Income may also be modest. In a comprehensive review of career trends for the Maryland Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office (MACRO), which involved extensive interviews of scholars and practitioners in the field, Bob Rhudy (2014) concluded:
With some exceptions, most persons interviewed described a fairly long pathway to full-time career success. . . . With particular reference to such private practitioner services as mediation and public policy facilitation, the perception is that a small number of practitioners get very good incomes while there are fairly recent estimates that the majority of providers in private practice likely make $50,000 annually or less from such work while perhaps supplementing their conflict resolution income through other activities.
Mediator work is different than work as an accountant, engineer, nurse, teacher, office manager, HR professional, or other positions, and full-time mediator jobs advertised through traditional means are not plentiful in the way many other jobs are. While marketing one’s services is essential in any field, not everyone is equipped or resourced to do this, so trained, credentialed mediators must think twice about whether making mediation their “day job” is justified when weighed against the time, expense, and effort to get business. They must assess whether within their chosen mediation practice (workplace, domestic, environmental, etc.) they can engage in full- or part-time effort, or whether they can specialize or serve as a generalist.
This is the world of “professional mediators,” which is distinct in many ways from the mediators highlighted by Ury, Beer and Packard, and Cloke. I’ll call them “professionals who mediate,” though the category of individuals who mediate in everyday settings is much broader than that term implies. Unlike the first group who may or may not have ample business, these individuals have no problem keeping busy. They are not the “arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators” counted in labor statistics but individuals in the trenches of work, life, and community who seek to help others with their everyday interpersonal conflicts and communication challenges. They are early warning warriors who intervene in the early stages based on their position, access, and availability relative to the parties involved. For them, mediation is one responsibility among many, rather than their sole duty, and receiving certification, compensation, and opportunity to work in a professional capacity as mediators are not immediate goals.
Nearly everyone can learn to mediate, from nursery school children to juvenile offenders, violent prisoners, illiterate peasants, political radicals, and corporate executives, all of whom I have seen mediate successfully. Mediation is a life skill and a social art in which everyone ought to be trained. In some distant, unimaginable future, mediation training might even be considered a human right [2003, p. 53].
Such is the broad terrain where mediators are needed and where individuals from all walks of life can serve, but what about the availability of resources to support them? As “mediator” is contemplated within a narrow range of professional services, is the availability of mediator development and support similarly narrow and limited?
Jordaan and Mascucci (2020) discuss the limits to educational opportunities for professionals who did not receive formal education in mediation compared to students in law and business school:
Currently the focus of negotiation courses offered by global companies is mostly on sales and procurement negotiations and not dispute management and resolution. Offering access to courses focused on dispute avoidance and management as part of their employees’ professional development could bring significant added value to a company, especially if those courses are customised to the organisation’s needs and not merely generic, off-the-shelf products.
Many individuals who informally and regularly mediate everyday conflicts have likely not received structured training. If they did, it likely catered to mediators in more traditional settings rather than address their specific needs and unique conflict environments and situations. For this to be otherwise, professional groups and associations that support their development and the organizations that employ them must recognize the need and endeavor to meet it.
This is not occurring in any significant fashion. The Human Resources Certification Institute (HRCI), one of two leading U.S. HR accreditation bodies, gives little priority to the direct role HR professionals can play in mediating conflicts. Its A Guide to the Human Resource Body of Knowledge (HRBoK) is silent on this issue. The closest it gets is with respect to the “employee and labor relations” domain regarding terminations and discipline which are “fraught with emotion and conflict, requiring the true advocacy role of human resources to be practiced, serving the needs of both the employer and the employee” (Reed, 2017, p. 9). It explicitly reserves use of mediation and ADR to formal processes facilitated by external third-party specialists, ignoring the role HR can play in early stages before conflict escalates to a formal complaint (Reed, 2017, p. 300-306?). Conversely, the other major accreditation body, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), includes the sub-competency “conflict management” within the “Relationship Management” competency and explicitly references mediation, among other skills, to facilitate conflict resolution (SHRM, 2022, p. 31).
Another bar to early-intervention mediation strategies is reliance on rigid organizational policies for managing conflict and employee complaints. David Liddle, author of Managing Conflict: A Practical Guide to Resolution in the Workplace, argues such procedures give the “outward appearance” of taking complaints seriously, being legally compliant, and providing procedural fairness, but end up leaving underlying issues unresolved and relationships irrevocably damaged, fostering a blame culture, and reducing conflict to right/wrong, win/lose propositions (2017, pp. 17-19). They fail to “acknowledge that conflict can be creative, healthy and positive – that conflict can be functional and even transformational [pp. 19-20].” Liddle advocates for “a resolution culture rather than a grievance culture” which includes, among other practices, “early resolution meetings,” co-facilitated conversations by labor and HR, and “embedding an internal mediation scheme” where people are trained as in-house mediators. (Liddle, SHRM, 2017).
Many organizations incorporate mediation procedures within formal complaint and grievance procedures, but not informally, pre-complaint. Both at-will employment policies and collective bargaining agreements incorporate such procedures which often toll the clock, suspending complaint filing deadlines to allow time for mediation to facilitate resolution (if it will). A positive example is the U.S. Postal Service REDRESS program, which incorporates a transformative, collaborative mediation process within its formal complaint process (Bingham, 2012). Yet, this reinforces the default to formal processes before mediation becomes available and depends on external professional mediators to facilitate. This misses early-stage opportunities for realizing Liddle’s “resolution culture.” It is not what Daniel Dana, author of Conflict Resolution: Mediation Tools for Everyday Worklife, calls “preventive” or “self-help” mediation involving “[t]he use, by a third party or a stakeholder, of simple dialogue tools to resolve conflicts that have not become serious enough to require the services of a professional mediator [2001, p. 15].”
We are far from realizing mediation as “a life skill and a social art,” much less a human right that Cloke envisions. Jan Sunoo also advocates for mediation as “a universal life skill” and laments its current state:
Mediation is boxed in, it’s viewed simply as a tool to pull out when all else fails. The problem with the state of mediation is that is [sic] is still considered a specialization to be used only in certain situations .
Mediation should instead be viewed more expansively:
We have to stop thinking of mediation as simply another profession to earn us money and status like being a businessman, lawyer or CPA. Being a mediator and knowing the skills we have shoulders us with a higher responsibility to share what we know to improve society [Sunoo, 2018].
And to equip others and “qualify” them as mediators in the everyday settings where they are best positioned to serve.
This article is the first of four on this topic. In the next two, I discuss examples of “professionals who mediate” who would benefit from unique skill development, including both generalists and individuals in managerial and leadership roles. The final article in the series provides insights on training and development for addressing their specific needs and interests.
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