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Time for mediation certification in the U.S.? Not this way, thanks

The Association for Conflict Resolution’s Family Section released the latest edition of its quarterly newsletter, Family Mediation News. A front page article insists in large typeface that “Certification of Mediators Needed Now More than Ever” (PDF).

Author Stephen K. Erickson, chair of ACR’s Taskforce on Mediator Certification, explains why he thinks so:

Certification of mediators is no longer an issue that should be debated. Certification is essential to the continued development of the mediation field and it must be accomplished in the near future for two important reasons: 1) Increasingly, adjudicative models of dispute resolution are being called “mediation” when, in fact, they are actually coercive and/or evaluative settlement conferencing techniques masquerading as mediation, and this confuses the public; and 2) ACR members who have toiled for years to provide the public with quality dispute resolution processes have difficulty marketing their products when the public is unable to distinguish between a qualified mediator and an unqualified person who decides to enter into the field with little or no training in mediation.

According to Erickson, before establishing certification one must first determine what constitutes “good mediation” (Erickson’s phrase, not mine).  When it comes to recognizing “good mediation”, however, Erickson seems to adhere to the Justice Potter Stewart school of “I know it when I see it“, or rather “I know it when I don’t see it”.  Erickson argues that since one of mediation’s central tenets is the principle of self-determination, mediation practices that fail to support self-determination do not constitute the competent practice of mediation. So, because they undermine self-determination, Erickson excludes from “good mediation” evaluative and directive approaches, such as mediation conducted by a “retired judge” or by a mediator not “from a behavioral science background” who relies heavily on caucusing (private meetings with parties individually, rather than joint meetings with all parties present).

I am personally uncomfortable with any labeling of mediation practices as either “good” or “bad”. This unnuanced view does not help us describe effective mediator process choices that produce for disputants successful and satisfying outcomes. Although at one time I argued in favor of formal credentialing or licensing, I no longer support it with the same fervor, since too many questions remain to be answered, and Erickson’s discussion of the issue of certification illustrates why I think we should all be concerned when anyone insists that certification is integral to the advancement of our field.

For one thing, who says that facilitative mediation is the best way to practice?  If self-determination matters as much as Erickson says it does, then what if parties prefer to work with an evaluative mediator? What if they really do want an evaluation at the end of a hard day of facilitative mediation to help them move beyond impasse?  What if they prefer to work in private meetings with the mediator, rather than directly with each other face-to-face? Why must we assume that one style of practice fits all?  In addition, who gets to decide what’s “good” or what’s “bad”? Surely not the mediator. If self-determination matters, shouldn’t we be listening to the users of mediation services tell us what works for them and what approach best fits their needs, rather than paternalistically insisting that we know what’s best for them?  Others, respected scholars, have pointed out that evaluation can in fact “bolster party self-determination … by leading to better-informed decision-making”.

Moreover, given how dysfunctional ACR has been for several years now as an organization and unresponsive to the concerns of members, why should I place confidence in its ability to steer a clear course for the ADR profession on the important question of certification, particularly since it has already dropped the ball once on this issue?

I agree with Erickson that self-determination is key, but not in the way he imagines it; I say let disputants determine for themselves what kind of mediator and what kind of process they need.

In fact, I would argue that another mediation principle is equally relevant: informed consent. Rather than excluding evaluative mediation from the list of “good” practices, perhaps it’s time instead to urge all who call themselves mediators to provide disputants with sufficient information about the approach they utilize — facilitative, transformative, evaluative, narrative, or a hybrid of approaches, who cares — so that the disputants themselves can make informed choices when it comes to selecting the best mediator for the job.

In the renewed call for certification, it strikes me as premature and unwise to exile members of our own community. New direction depends upon fresh thinking, not on orthodoxy. A facilitative mediator myself, I like to think that mediation remains a large enough tent that many styles remain welcome.


Diane J. Levin

Diane Levin, J.D., is a mediator, dispute resolution trainer, negotiation coach, writer, and lawyer based in Marblehead, Massachusetts, who has instructed people from around the world in the art of talking it out. Since 1995 she has helped clients resolve disputes involving tort, employment, business, estate, family, and real property… MORE >

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