What to Look for in a Mediator

My friend Valerie says that there is a mediator out there for everyone. With so many mediators to choose from and so many different approaches, how can you find the right mediator for you? Mediation is a confidential process, so it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to see a particular mediator in action before hiring. You can ask around or look for reviews on the internet, but that won’t necessarily lead you to the right person for your conflict. Even the mediator who helped your best friend won’t automatically be the best one for you.

Whatever qualities you feel are important in a mediator, probably the best place to start is with the professional association of mediators in your area. In Toronto, that would be the Alternative Dispute Resolution Institute of Ontario. A mediator who belongs to such an organization has made a commitment to the profession and to professional development. Depending on the rules of the organization, he or she will have been educated about the causes and dynamics of conflict, and about different approaches to conflict resolution. If you are looking for a mediator to help you facilitate a separation agreement or divorce, you should look for someone who has had training in family mediation. Such training usually includes an over-view of the relevant family laws. Of course, a mediator can inform you about the law but ordinarily will not (and should not) offer legal advice.

Very broadly speaking, the main difference among mediators is whether they take an evaluative or a more facilitative approach. Mediators who are strongly evaluative will not hesitate to tell you their views on your dispute and what they think an appropriate resolution would be. Mediators who are more towards the facilitative end of the spectrum may offer suggestions to help you solve specific problems, but their focus will be on helping the parties in the dispute arrive at their own resolutions. The thinking behind this approach is that the parties involved are likely the most knowledgeable about the details of their own situation and so the best equipped to come up with durable solutions. There is also a good deal of evidence that people are more likely to respect agreements that they themselves have had a hand in crafting, rather than settlements that have been foisted upon them.

It is perfectly acceptable (and probably a good idea) before you hire a mediator to ask about their training and about their style and approach. Whatever the nature of your conflict, it is crucial that you feel comfortable with the mediator and can develop a sense of trust. Even over the phone, you should have the feeling that the mediator is really listening to you, not just waiting for you to stop talking. It is very important that a mediator give the impression of being impartial about your conflict from the beginning. He or she will listen sympathetically but will not readily take your side no matter how compellingly you present it. Don’t be disappointed about this. While it is understandable that you would want an ally in an emotionally charged situation, do not try to put a mediator into that role. Mediators are able to do a better job in the end if all parties respect them as neutral in the dispute.

The Alternative Dispute Resolution Institute of Ontario currently has about 850 members. Whether your conflict involves a business, family members, co-workers, or the whole neighbourhood, one of them will be the right person to help you.