When people ask "what does it take to be a good mediator?", I answer; Plenty of knowledge, a whole lot of training, years of practice, and some talent. It takes specialist knowledge about intra-personal and inter-personal conflict dynamics, advanced skills in facilitating complex communication, and a whole toolbox of techniques gained over years of practice as a mediator. It also takes the talent to know when and how to use all this well in the moment.
In some circles, there is a perception that becoming a mediator is easy. You can become qualified after a 5-day course. How hard can it be? In fact, the 5-day course introduces the “standard model” and some of the skills, knowledge and techniques that mediators use. It is like doing a beginner driving course and getting your first “P” license - just enough to get you on the road. Becoming an expert in mediation takes a great deal more.
Another view is that these are common sense skills that can be learned by anyone. There are short courses in schools and workplaces teaching how to prevent, manage and resolve conflict. It is certainly a good thing to be increasing these skills across the board. However, just as everyone can and should learn to swim, to help prevent drownings, some situations still require life guards. When people say “we tried mediation and it didn’t help” I explain that using an expert mediator is like visiting a new city for the first time and the difference between having a GPS or a local guide.
Some believe that a mediator must be a subject matter expert to resolve particular types of conflict. Most mediators are invited to express their expertise in terms of the type of conflict they mediate. Some mediators’ credibility derives from their experience as a leader or specialist in a particular subject. In my view, the value of using a specialist is their awareness of culture and context. Although knowing your subject helps, it doesn’t make you a great teacher. It helps in some cases to know the subject well, but it doesn’t speak to someone's merit as a mediator and in some situations, it can actually create a bias that is unhelpful.
Each of the three views above can make it tricky to talk about being an expert in mediation. The knowledge, skills and techniques of mediation are not quick or easy to acquire. Mediation takes significant time, practice, and commitment to master.
If I'm doing my job well, people in conflict will be empowered to be experts in their own situation. They will feel safe to say everything they need to and their voice will be heard. Finally, when they reach a resolution, it may feel like they've solved it out all by themselves.
So, when people ask me what is my area of expertise? I reply that I am an expert in mediation. My expertise is in working with people in a way that encourages and empowers them to connect, communicate and cooperate with each other.