Mediation is often described as both an art and a science. A science because the practice is governed by a clear framework, with concrete technical components and legal boundaries.
An art because skilled mediators draw on a variety of less tangible assets, like intuition, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and a gift for cultivating trust amidst tension and hostility.
Mediators employ a complex skillset to bring opposing parties together, and help them formulate their own solutions to challenging disputes.
What specific skills do you need to be successful in this field?
These are widely recognized as the most important competencies for professional mediators. They form the basis of quality mediator training, and are essential for a thriving career in alternative dispute resolution.
1. Establishing Transparency
Mediators must never assume clients fully understand the mediation process. It’s crucial to walk parties through the stages of mediation, what’s expected of them, what behaviors will not be tolerated, and how the outcome will be presented.
Mediators need to clearly and patiently explain the ground rules, and do a good job of setting expectations, right from the outset.
In this way, you assert your authority and credibility as a mediator, while making the entire process transparent to participants.
Establishing transparency is a key first step toward making everyone more comfortable with, and open to, the collaborative process.
2. Maintaining Neutrality
As a mediator, you will not be perceived as “believable” or professional if you let your neutrality waver. This is much easier said than done, because at heart, all humans are subject to emotions and opinions. No one is truly objective about anything!
The goal is to restrain those impulses to the best of your ability, and conceal your inner thoughts during mediation. Regardless of how you may feel, you must appear resolutely neutral at all times.
3. Managing Emotion
Maintaining neutrality is closely linked with managing emotion. Without self-control, the mediator may reveal his true feelings about an issue or participant, thereby undermining his credibility (and abilities) as an objective facilitator.
Sam Imperati, JD, a veteran lawyer and ADR professional, sums it up best when describing the essential traits of a mediator:
“The Mediator must be totally objective in evaluating the information obtained... He must have exceptional self-control to avoid displays of genuine anger, irritation, sympathy, or weariness that may cause him to lose the initiative during questioning.”
Displays of emotion can include even very subtle body language. Mediators need exceptional self-awareness to avoid betraying their true thoughts and opinions.
4. Building Trust & Rapport
It can be challenging to build rapport and trust with each participant while maintaining the appearance of total neutrality. Mediators must be very careful to devote equal attention and receptiveness to each participant, lest they appear to “play favorites.”
Parties will be watching your tone and gestures very closely. Key tactics for building trust and rapport include:
☑️ Showing empathy
☑️ Being non-judgment
☑️ Not interrupting
☑️ Prohibiting aggressive behavior or abusive language
☑️ Using open-ended questions that encourage sharing
☑️ Adapting to the different personalities of participants
☑️ Being careful to turn toward and make eye contact with each client equally (body language)
The ability to establish rapport is often identified as the most important skill for mediators, beyond all other mediation techniques. It is considered a pre-requisite for moving discussions forward and finding a resolution.
“To gain parties’ trust and confidence, rapport must be genuine...Before people are willing to settle, they must feel that their interests are truly understood. Only then can a mediator reframe problems and float creative solutions.”
5. Facilitating Collaboration
The mediator is not the one who decides the outcome of a dispute. The participants must work together to find a mutually acceptable resolution.
The mediator acts as a guide and facilitator, helping parties to communicate and negotiate their way toward an agreeable solution.
This process calls for a variety of tactics, including diffusing hostility, encouraging full disclosure, focusing on positive outcomes, and reminding parties that they’ve agreed to work together in this process.
The ability to facilitate collaboration and bring opposing parties together is the hallmark of an effective mediator.
6. Steering Parties Toward Shared Goals
The more clients are willing to share, collaborate, and negotiate, the closer they come to finding an acceptable resolution to the conflict at hand.
Obviously, the process rarely goes so smoothly. Discussions can easily take a wrong turn and descend into arguments. Walls go up, parties retreat to their separate corners, and the mediation grinds to a halt.
This is when the mediator needs to re-focuss the process on shared goals and mutually beneficial outcomes. They need to coax participants out of a protective stance, back toward openness and collaboration.
Experienced mediator and instructor, Hailey MacPhail describes it this way:
“The client has the answer to their problem—and it is our role to bring forth those moments of awareness and revelation.
These skills develop during mediation training when we do mock mediations and role play. Students learn how to ask goal-directed and future-oriented questions, so clients can move forward, and begin discussing goals and strategies for change.”
7. Deep Listening
Deep listening goes below the surface, where the true nature of each dispute lies hidden. As a mediator, it is your goal to uncover the genuine sources of each conflict—which is rarely what the client tells you up front.
In many cases, there is an underlying, powerful, perhaps painful grievance that is driving the dispute. Good mediators are apt detectives, skilled at noticing subtle clues and picking up on markers that others would miss.
This can’t happen without exceptional listening skills, which in turn prompt effective questioning and other tailored “approach” strategies.
8. Taking the Pulse
Is it time to change tactics? Are you getting close to a resolution? Are both parties exhausted and in need of a break? A skilled mediator knows how to “take the pulse” of the mediation and adapt accordingly.
From anticipating and diffusing rising hostility, to calling it quits for the day, an effective mediator always stays alert and attuned to evolving dynamics.
9. Organization & Time Management
People often turn to mediation as a faster, more affordable alternative to litigation. But that’s only true if the mediator is well-organized and efficient.
This includes everything from showing up prepared and on time, to swiftly uncovering the true nature of the dispute and effectively moving clients toward a resolution.
A good mediator knows how to avoid time-wasting traps and keep the process on track.
Learn more about becoming a successful mediator
Whether you’re a manger hoping to better manage conflicts between employees, or striving to launch a career as a professional mediator, your success begins with an effective training program.
Mediation training comes in all forms. The most important sign of quality? Accreditation by the ADR Institute of Canada and your regional affiliate.
Only graduates of approved mediation courses can apply for designation as a Qualified Mediator or Chartered Mediator with the ADR Institute.
Learn more about the ADR Institute’s mission, professional designations, and membership rules here.
An accredited mediator program teaches the theory and practical skills required to launch your career, and earn the entry-level Qualified Mediator (Q. Med) designation.
This your first step toward becoming a credible professional mediator. Get started by exploring the accredited, online mediation course offered through Kompass Professional Development.
Graduates of this course are eligible for the Q. Med designation. Click below to learn more about the program. Or chat live with a qualified advisor right now.