Getting better all the time – in Mediation

by Lynn Johnson

We all know there is no substitute for practice, especially in a skills and brains activity such as mediation.  In basic mediation training we learn a process, and we learn and practice the skills to carry out the process. Some skills, like flat-reflecting, are easy to learn and others like active listening need patience and lots of practice.

We’re taught to trust the process.  Generally that means that if we respect the parties, listen to them, learn their wants and needs, and help them explore options; sometimes a magical thing happens and an agreement appears. To make that “sometimes” more frequent we need to pay attention to what we did and how it was received. 

When we work as a team in co-mediation and when we practice role-plays in classes, we use “debriefing” to get feedback that helps us improve. Debriefing can be effective and powerful when a skilled mediation instructor is included.  But when we go out into the everyday world to mediate cases on our own, we may not have the help of another skilled mediator to give us that objectivity in debriefing. 

We can use professional development groups and in-service meetings for some of that valuable debriefing, both can be effective.  But they do not generally occur immediately after a challenging mediation. Further, the shared time they offer may not be as relevant as immediate post-mediation debriefing. 

 A variety of debriefing structures exist and some can be used independently, without requiring another skilled mediator.  Recently I was  impressed by a simple debrief/feedback structure the Clackamas County Resolution Services folks use in their training.  The structure is straightforward and flexible and can be used by one or multiple people depending on who was present at the mediation.  There are two or four questions/statements depending on your objectives.  Here they are: 

  1. What I liked about my work in this mediation is . . . 
    For example, “When I noticed P was providing a variety of reasons the proposals offered by D were not acceptable, I asked him/her to describe what an acceptable solution would include.”   

    This question should be used to name three specific things you liked about what you did as the mediator.  They should be positive and give reasons why you liked them.  Try hard to find at least three of these.
  2. One thing I may try is . . . 
    For example, “One thing I might try when parties are cooperating and generating options is to stay quiet but show by my posture and expressions that I am engaged and there to help.”

    This question should also be positive and name something you would like to try because you think it might reinforce the mediation process.

    (The next two questions may be more constructively used with a coach, but they can be used in self-appraisal as well.)
  3. (coach speaking) A growth message I have for you is . . .
    For example, “A growth message I have for you is to trust you ability to apply the mediation process by putting the responsibility for progress into the hands of the participants.”

    (in self-appraisal it might look like this)  “I want to learn to be comfortable allowing the parties to . . . I believe this will re-engage the parties and uncover some real needs.”  

    This question should name a skill or concept that can drive learning to another level.    
  4. (coach speaking) How I imagine that would look in your work is . . . 
    For example, “How I imagine this will look in your work is learning to be comfortable allowing the parties to explore options when you have a perfectly good solution in your own mind.”
    (in self-appraisal it might be aspirational but it must be realistic to be meaningful.)  “How I imagine that might look in my work is that I will be able to take ____ (some kind of challenging) cases and feel comfortable in my ability to provide quality mediation.”

    This should conceptualize the effects of the growth message.  

This series of questions/statements, especially #1 and #2, can be used by the mediator herself/himself, and a coach, a co-mediator, or a mediation supervisor, or even an observer or outside evaluator.  The goal is to have a simple yet effective process that you will use because it’s easy to do and it works; debriefing doesn’t work unless we do it. 

After our mediation experiences, like most of our personal experiences, we may ruminate on the extremes, basking in the achievements and finding “reasons” we were unable to do better.  This structure works because it identifies the positive elements of what we did, considers them, and tries to make sense of how they work.

(Any good ideas expressed here should be credited to Lauren MacNeill and Chandra Emery of the Clackamas County Resolution Services.  The not so great ideas are those solely of the author.)