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The Essential Elements of Mediation Training

Whether defined by a regulatory agency, statewide association, or solely trainer’s choice, the topics and skills covered in a Basic Mediation Training are quite similar across the country, having been “passed-down” like an oral history between generations of mediators. The topics are similar to an ingredient list for a recipe, in that the experience of the consumer is equally dependent on how the ingredients are prepared; the intangible intentions, timing, presentation, and nuanced spices of the chef.

As the CDRC for which I work (RNW, or Resolutions Northwest, in Portland, OR) prepares for its 15th annual Basic Mediation Training, we are reflecting upon what we have learned over the years as best practices for training mediators.  Outside of the topics, the process, and the skills on the training agenda, what essential elements provide the ideal environment for the greatest inspiration, learning, integration, and ultimately, effectiveness of mediators-in-training?  What follows are some of the elements and examples that have made our training the unique regional institution it has become.

Community.  Mediation operates in the more personally vulnerable realm than most skills; touching on the quality of our relationships, and trainees sense of acceptance, empowerment, connection and belonging in life. To support learning in this arena, it is essential to build a sense of community with trainees; a feeling that “we are all in this together”, learning, practicing, supporting and encouraging each other. 

At RNW, this begins the first evening of the training with a universal ritual of building community: we “break bread” together by providing and sharing dinner with the trainees.  We devote an hour getting building connections through sharing each other’s favorite activities and hobbies.  Later in the training, we help dismantle assumptions about each other through discovering something unique about each trainee.  This broader sense of belonging in a community is extended during our skills practice sessions, when several participants from previous trainings coach and mentor the new trainees.

Emotional Safety.  For most people, the mediation “mindset” is a challenging new way to be with others, in regards to authenticity, emotional intensity and the valuing of presence and empathy versus giving advice or trying to “fix-it.”  The challenge of re-wiring our way of being is acutely hampered by any degree of perfectionism, pressure, competition, and fear that the trainee is “doing it wrong.”  At RNW trainings, we make it clear that there is no one-right-way to mediate or intervene in a difficult moment with parties. We provide mediators with a few options and encourage trainees to try them out or something they create on their own, while emphasizing awareness and adaptability to the parties responses.  In other words, “there is no failure, only learning.”  We have begun to illustrate this by using a wheel of mediator tools that trainees can spin when feeling stuck. 

Our trainers pay attention to and discuss how each trainee is doing, and check-in with participants who might need more support.  We tightly structure and facilitate the vulnerable mock mediation debriefs to ensure that participant feedback is “constructive.” Overall, we create safety by celebrating mediation as life-long learning path, wherein every person, (including the trainers), has unlimited adventures regardless of how far or quickly we are down that path.

Stress Reduction.  As with emotional safety, mediation is learned and integrated by trainees most effectively if there is minimal stress.  Stress is reduced in many ways during the training, including progressing at a reasonable pace, breaking down skills and processes into bite-sized chunks, and clearly demonstrating something before asking trainees to practice it. One of the greatest sources of stress for new mediators is the fear the belief they are solely responsible for the parties achieving of a satisfying outcome and the fear they are going to screw-up the parties’ relationship even more. 

At RNW, we counter this stress by highlighting conflict as an extended process between the parties, for which the in-person mediation is just one of the stops along the way, with the pre- and post-session case development being other, sometimes more influential ways to assist the parties.  We also demonstrate how a mediator can recover from almost any “mistake” with grace and humility.  Ultimately, the trainees’ stress is diminished by their embodied adoption of the awareness that the parties are responsible for the outcome, while the mediator only provides the structure and process.

Timing and Integration.  We have done several mediation trainings in five continuous days, and found that while there are some benefits to the immersion, this type of schedule can be depleting to participants and their learning retention is lower one to six months later.  When we have done mediation trainings with training days once per week, the momentum of continuous learning wanes a bit in-between meeting times.  Thus, we have determined that the ideal schedule for participants is for the training days to be two to three days apart. This additionally provides opportunities for trainees to contemplate or practice specific skills in their home/work lives between each training day.  The suggested “homework” demonstrates the applicability mediation has for their life, increasing learning motivation and retention.

Empowerment/Encouragement.  Mediation trainees learn quicker when they are not wrestling with their inner critics or under the pressure of a competitive learning environment.  Our trainers project the attitude “you can do this” in many ways.  Before teaching anything about mediation, we do an activity called “Speed Mediating”, during which the new trainees role play one multi-headed mediator (two minutes per trainee) with the only instruction being “don’t give advice or try to fix-it”.  The act of being thrown into the mediator chair with our trust elicits the skills and capacities they already have that are qualities of a skilled mediator.  We continue to build on this confidence by encouraging trainees to take risks in practice sessions and, when in doubt, trust their own intuition.

While there are many other elements and nuances for creating the ideal learning environment for mediation trainees, some of the approaches in this article have consistently led to a high level of learning and satisfaction reported by our mediator trainees.  Do you have additional tips for effective mediator training?  Please share them in the comments below!


Stuart Watson

Stuart Watson is a Portland, Oregon based Mediation Trainer, a Family and Divorce Mediator with Oregon Divorce Guides, LLC. He is the author of the 78–card Relationship Help Toolkit called The Relationship Repair Game. Stuart has been teaching conflict resolution and mediating for nearly 20 years, as a Family Mediator… MORE >

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