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The Making Of A Mediator

There are three common questions I am asked when people find out I am a mediator.

“Are you a lawyer?” No.

“Are you a psychologist?” No.

“Well, what is your background?” by which I believe they are politely wondering, ‘What makes you qualified to get in the middle of people’s problems?’

Law and psychology are two common paths to mediation. Many of the professional mediators I know come from those fields. But other professions offer opportunities to develop the knowledge and skills needed to be a successful mediator. My work as a teacher and writer led me to conflict resolution.

One of my first jobs was teaching sailing. If you want to see how people deal with stress, get on a boat with them. On water, things move along calmly, until they don’t. I experienced more than one newly married couple setting out on the adventure of learning to sail together only to have Captain Bly start shouting commands to his lovely new bride. I had to figure out how to speak with enough authority so the captain-to-be would listen to me, a kid, half his own age, and with enough deference so as not to challenge his status in front of his shipmate. It was a tricky balance to learn, and one that serves me well at the mediation table when needing to acknowledge various types of status or balance power between parties.

In my senior year of college, I was able to get a job with a national news magazine. What is news but the documentation of conflict? Part of my duties included reporting and writing about regional news events of national interest. I’d pick up the phone to interview people for stories about fashion, crime and aviation—terrified of sounding stupid about the topic. Over time, I learned that my ignorance could actually be useful. If I could resist that urge to be the expert, I could find the right questions to get people talking about their experiences and learn what I needed to know to write the article.

In my mediation practice, I am constantly reminded of the power of the right question at the right time. And that no question is too dumb to ask. Those dumb questions, the ones that seem so obvious that you feel a little foolish asking them, clarify hidden assumptions and uncover details that need to be addressed.

As a reporter, I tried to be objective about stories. I learned that the value of an ideal such as objectivity is found not in achieving it, but in striving for it. The more I consciously tried to be objective, the more my own biases surfaced. If I could see my bias, I could challenge myself to learn more about the issues from others’ perspectives.

Neutrality in mediation works pretty much the same way. I don’t think I’ll ever live into the ideal, but if I can pay close enough attention to biases as they surface in me, I can do a better job of dealing with them so my clients don’t have to.

I took the power of asking dumb questions a step farther when I became a technical writer at a large software company in the Pacific Northwest. I had no technical background beyond knowing how to boot up a computer and, if anything stopped working, to reboot the computer. In this new world of tech speak, I was lost. Yet I found that in my state of bewilderment, if I showed genuine interest in what the software engineers had designed by asking those dumb questions, I could do a fair job translating their technical jargon into something an end user, that’s you and me, would find useful.

As mediators, we translate technical information into plain-speak quite often, whether rephrasing legalese in a mediation involving lawyers and non-lawyers, mediating contract disputes between union employees and management, or negotiating parenting plans with polarized ex-spouses. We get good at simplifying complex, mind-numbing jargon into meaningful agreements.

Over the years my interest in journalistic writing morphed into fiction and poetry, which led me to teach creative writing to adults. My method: sitting in a circle with aspiring poets and novelists and non-fiction writers to help them discover their voices and gain confidence shaping and sharing their stories. Turns out we mediators spend of lot of time doing the same work.

We learn to listen not only to people’s words, but for the meaning between the words. We listen for the intentions, concerns, and interests so we can bring them into the room more clearly so others might hear them as well. We focus not only on the logical linkage of ideas, but on the emotional content of language and work with it to deepen understanding around the table.

In my work at the software company, I was able to apply my technical writing to employee and management development issues. I learned to design classroom training and augmented my work experience by attending a graduate program called Whole Systems Design, Organization Systems Renewal, which is a fancy way of saying I learned how to facilitate adult learning in organizational settings.

I began to see how systems could be designed to help people learn proactively, to become what Peter Senge calls learning organizations. And then I sat in a class that transfixed my attention on conflict resolution. It was a class designed to help employees hold difficult conversations. I learned that something about conflict really excites me—not necessarily my own conflict, but structuring others’ conflict so they can more effectively reach their common goals.

That interest in conflict led me to learn more about the field of conflict resolution. I attended a local Dispute Resolution Center’s Basic Mediation class, went through their intern program and began mediating for the DRC. I was then able to leverage my training experience into a job teaching conflict resolution and meeting management skills with a small, local dispute resolution firm, which also allowed me to mediate and consult on conflict resolution issues for private and government organizations.

“The work of the world is common as mud,” writes Marge Piercy in her poem To Be of Use. “Botched, it smears the hands , crumbles to dust./ But the thing worth doing well done/ has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.” Helping people shape their conflicts into meaningful agreements offers that kind of satisfaction. I think that’s why mediation attracts people from so many personal and professional backgrounds—lawyers, psychologists, teachers, writers, bankers, mortgage brokers, building contractors, mothers , retirees, and so on. It feels good using what you know to bring peace to the world—one conversation at a time.


Doug Nathan

Doug Nathan is Managing Partner of conflictmatters, providing conflict resolution and leadership development services to Public and Private Sector clients.  What do poetry, conflict engagement and leadership development have in common? I've been working with them as levers of change within businesses, government, and non-profit organizations for over 17 years.… MORE >

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