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The George Mitchell Syndrome: When Is A Mediator A Mediator?

This article originally appeared in the January 1999 issue of Consensus, a
newspaper published jointly by the Consensus Building
Institute and the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program.

If defining dispute

resolution as a field is difficult, determining

who is – and isn’t – a practitioner is even


Is training required to become a good

mediator? Or is it hands-on experience in the

trenches of conflict? Do formal credentials

matter? Is mediation even a skill that can be

learned? All of the above? None of the above?

Take the example of former Senate Majority

Leader George Mitchell. Certainly, few would

dispute that Mitchell functioned as a skilled and

effective mediator as he spent years moving

warring parties in Northern Ireland toward the

Good Friday Agreement reached last April.

“In a conflict situation like that one,

the parties are looking for someone with some

skill in negotiations, but not necessarily

someone with formal training as a mediator,”

Mitchell told CONSENSUS after a recent speech at

Tufts University. “No one ever asked me to

submit a resume in connection with this.”

“I do think that formal education is

appropriate, but there is required some

subjective sense of judgment. You have to look

for the proper background and training to fit the

appropriate circumstances,” said Mitchell, a

senator from Maine for 14 years.

“In my case, my political experience,

particularly my six years as majority leader,

were extremely helpful because the negotiators in

this (Irish peace) process were politicians. I

understood the circumstances in which they

existed and operated. I had been in similar

circumstances myself.”

Max Bazerman, a professor at Northwestern

University’s Kellogg School and visiting faculty

member at Harvard Business School, said classroom

and experience-based training both have their


“This issue of intuitive versus training

ability is a silly debate,” said Bazerman,

whose expertise is in negotiations and

decision-making. “It’s not one or the other

– it’s additive. Whether or not you are a star

intuitively, everyone can gain both by learning

to think more systematically (in a classroom

context) as well as from the vicarious experience

of experts.”

For example, Mitchell made one procedural move

that turned out to be a positive turning point –

though it could have backfired. With the

agreement of the participants in the Irish peace

talks, he set a firm deadline. “That was

widely regarded as a crucial decision in the

process,” Mitchell said.

But such experiences and lesson from people

like Mitchell don’t necessarily make it into the

field’s knowledge base, said Simmons College

Graduate School of Management Professor Deborah


“The problem of from the field

perspective is that there are lots of people

doing mediation we know nothing about,” said

Kolb, whose book, When Talk Works,

profiles the techniques and styles of different

kinds of mediators. “There are tons of

incompetents running around, but then there are

people with a great deal of experience in

building consensus like Mitchell. He’s highly

visible and articulate, so he will be interviewed

and people can learn how he goes about what he

does. But there are lots of people doing

mediation we know nothing about who may be doing

things we could learn from – if we knew about


Kolb is wary of the level of training of some

people who call themselves mediators.

“Just taking a one-week training course

doesn’t necessarily prepare you to be a

mediator,” she said. “There’s lots of

disservice to the field being done. Some of these

disputes are very complicated and it’s not clear

the people we send out have the skills to (handle


Perhaps, Kolb said, there should be more

apprenticeships within the dispute resolution

field. “That’s the way labor mediators

work,” she said. “You need to think

about lots of educational models.”


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