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When Mediators Meltdown

Fairly Legal Blogby Clare Fowler

Every field has its share of embarrassment.

The pilot who has a drink before getting on the plane. The surgeon who mistook the left foot for the right. The teacher who found her high-school student just too stinkin’ cute to pass up.

The mediation field has been lucky to skate by with relatively few catastrophic embarrassments (known on wood). There are a few upset clients here and there who might say that they thought their mediator was biased, or a mediator who pushed too hard on the clients, or who didn’t push hard enough. But thankfully, that I know of, we haven’t seen a primetime mediator meltdown.

A recent episode of Fairly Legal raised the question of best mediation practices. Kate Reed, the main mediator on the show, has been going through some life tragedies. Her husband cheated, a nasty divorce, death of her father, workplace conflict, and then her houseboat explodes–rendering her homeless.

Through some of these difficulties, most of us would say, “It’s been a rough day, but I can still be helpful to my clients.” But there has to be a certain point where we as mediators draw the line. Think about how different the headlines would be if every pilot who was too exhausted to fly said, “Sorry, I’ve got to ask for a substitute so I can get a nap.” Or if every overworked surgeon said, “I’m flustered and not thinking straight. Can I get some help in here?”

Unfortunately, the opposite is often true. As workers, we have adopted the Post Office semi-official creed:

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

Is it because we see ourselves as so necessary to our clients that we don’t allow ourselves a sick-day? Or is it because we are so desperate to establish a mediation practice that we are afraid to miss one mediation session? Or is it simply because we value showing up more than we value the peace that we bring to the table?

99.9% of the mediations I have attended, observed, or co-mediated have been powerful and impactful, both for me and the clients. I can think of a rare few, however, where the mediator would have been wise to say, “I am so sorry, but today I’m afraid I would do more harm than good.” For instance, one of my favorite mentors who was an incredibly effective mediator, had her home broken into the night before. She was up most of the night with the police, cleaning, and trying to determine what was taken. During the mediation, while one party was telling her very difficult and very long story, my co-mediator fell asleep. I tried to nudge her and kick her under the table. Eventually her own snoring woke her up. Upon waking, she apologized profusely, explained what had happened, and we rescheduled.

One other time, I saw a fellow mediator show up to a mediation shortly after finding out her father had died. She said that working was therapeutic to her and helped to keep her mind off of her sadness, but shortly into the mediation she realized that she couldn’t be there.

I believe that as mediators we have a different set of requirements than other fields for showing up to work. First off, we have to be physically present, of course. Meaning that we have to have made arrangements in our life so that we have enough flexibility in our schedule to accommodate the needs of our clients. Second, we have to be mentally present. Meaning that we are able to follow, analyze, and advise our clients. But there is a third requirement that sets us apart from many other fields–and it is often the most difficult. In addition to being mentally present we must also be mentally “peaceful.” Of course, we all have real life stressors that occasionally tug at our thoughts. I am not suggesting that in order to mediate we all must meditate in Tibet for three hours a day. But I am saying that we must be at a place where we can realistically help out our clients. If we are exhausted, stressed, furious, or grieving, then I believe it is our duty to examine if we need to request a replacement, a co-mediator, or a reschedule.

Is this difficult and slightly embarrassing? Of course. But perhaps it is better for you, for your clients, and for the field as a whole to reschedule than to be the first primetime mediator meltdown.


Clare Fowler

Clare Fowler is Executive Vice-President and Managing Editor at, as well as a mediator and trainer. Clare received her Master's of Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at the Pepperdine University School of Law and her Doctorate in Organizational Leadership, focused on reducing workplace conflicts, from Pepperdine… MORE >

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