Saturday, July 18, 2009

Is mediation a profession?

I attended a well-organized series of panels sponsored by the Southern California Mediation Association designed to further an ongoing debate over whether certification of mediators should be encouraged. There seemed to be a consensus that the time has come to stop just talking about this issue and start doing something about it, but there are still a lot of questions about how to address certification. There is a strong and understandable desire to build some respectability into the field, and to make sure the people who call themselves mediators are qualified to practice. There also seem to be a lot of people who think that the marketplace and the courts and provider organizations seem to be doing an adequate job of determining the appropriate qualifications for mediators.

Representatives of dispute resolution provider agencies (the AAA and JAMS) seemed ambivalent about the idea, pointing out that if certification were required, they would simply comply with whatever requirements the state or their clients demanded, even if these imposed some additional bureaucratic costs. On the other hand, a representative of the Western Justice Center, which is more oriented to community issues such as gangs or police problems, thought that if mediator certification imposed requirements that were too onerous for their volunteers and staff to meet, they might simply have to invent a new title for these people.

One of the academics on the panel pointed out that there does not seem to be a direct correlation between the amount of training possessed by mediators and their effectiveness. Of course the same might be said of doctors and lawyers and accountants as well, but the comment highlights a dilemma in the mediation field. What does it take to be an effective mediator? Most mediators bring to the field a fair amount of experience in a recognized profession (whether that be law or social work or some other area of expertise) coupled with a fairly short course of training in the techniques and theory of mediation. That kind of background, plus the application of people skills, seems to allow someone to become an effective mediator. So if we certify people who have merely taken a short course in mediation techniques, without also requiring some kind of substantive knowledge and experience, and without also making sure that mediators have the necessary people skills, perhaps we would not be doing enough to insure that certified mediators possess the desired level of skill. On the other hand, if we were to require the kind of extended coursework, testing and internships required in other professions, we might be disqualifying a lot of people who have successfully stepped into mediation without much training, after a career as a judge or attorney or therapist.

One of the things that makes the mediation field exciting is that it is relatively new, even though peacemakers and diplomats have been around since ancient times. I think it is good that college students can now take courses in conflict resolution. That helps balance out the students in military academies who study war-making. I also think it is good that law schools teach classes in negotiation, because we all need to learn how to negotiate better. For the field of mediation to gain more respect, it probably needs to adopt the same accouterments of standards and practices and coursework and journals and tests and licensing that are common to other recognized professions. These are never a guarantee of quality, and they do sometimes function to protect the members of the guild more than the public, but they also help the field define itself and make itself more understandable to the public. By recognizing mediation as a profession or trade, we may help develop the science and practice of mediation so that we all have a better idea of what works and what doesn't work.

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