How to Choose a Mediator

social workersWhen you go looking for a mediator, you are likely to find a few basic types competing to provide you services.

Many litigators like using retired judges.  It helps the lawyers to have someone else push their clients toward settlement.  These people know the law and every trick the lawyers might pull.  They tolerate no nonsense.  If your case will draw on their long courtroom experience knocking heads together, then you should seriously consider using someone like this.  The flip side is that some of them are so used to the gravitas of their former position that they become one-trick ponies.  They play shuttle diplomat, taking turns beating up each side on the weakness of its case until settlement occurs.  In mediator-lingo, they tend to be highly “evaluative.”

Then there are lawyer-mediators.  Like retired judges, these people have a high tolerance level for conflict, know the law and know the tricks of the lawyer trade.  They may have experience in the walk of life that is the subject of the mediation.  They can be evaluative but the better ones have more in their toolkit.  Their professional backgrounds are based on clients coming to them for advice and solutions, so sometimes they have a hard time stepping back and not pressing the parties toward what they think is the “right” answer.  However, that tendency can sometimes help the parties come up with creative solutions.

Most therapist-mediators (psychologists or social workers) have no trouble being neutral and non-directive.  It is their professional training.  They understand that the parties may need a patient observer and safe space to talk things out and can be terrific at facilitating that discussion.  However, sometimes, as with everyone else, their background gets in the way:  they have to learn to push toward closure even if there are lingering emotional issues.  They have to avoid the urge to “help.” Also, while many therapist-mediators can navigate the emotional storm of a divorce or family dispute better than the average lawyer, in other areas their experience may not be as strong.

Specialist mediators are people who have worked or studied in the area in which the dispute is taking place.  They have great substantive knowledge and a deep understanding of the field of play.  They can speak the language.  The flip side is that they may have a hard time going outside the conventions of the industry to help the parties craft a solution and, depending on how extensive their mediation training is, may rely more on their substantive knowledge than their toolkit of dispute resolution tools.

Everybody has plusses and minuses, and these generalizations do not apply to everyone.  There are empathetic former judges, hard-bitten social workers, creative and patient lawyers and versatile specialists.  Most of us strive for balance in all these qualities, and as the mediation field is evolving we learn more and more about what works in different situations.  As a prospective user of mediation services, you should consider the alternatives and the personal qualities of the person or people you choose to help you resolve your disagreement.