Recently I criticized a call by Stephen Erickson of the Association for Conflict Resolution to establish a certification system for mediators. (Lively discussion ensued, and people have continued to weigh in, so please feel free to contribute.)
According to Erickson, facilitative mediation is “good” and evaluative mediation, by inference, is bad, since evaluative mediation undermines self-determination, a core principle of mediation practice.
I responded by insisting that we owe it to our profession to bring greater nuance to our debate about mediation practice and credentialing, and not privilege one style of practice over another, reducing the debate to little more than facilitative-good/evaluative-bad.
But my main point was that we mediators need to do a much better job educating the public about what we do and how we practice so that parties can make informed decisions about choosing the approach – facilitative, transformative, evaluative, narrative, understanding-based, or a hybrid of approaches — that best fits their dispute.
However, just because we strive to be inclusive in discussing these issues does not mean that we check our critical faculties at the door. Evaluative mediation certainly has its uses, but it does have its shortcomings, too, as Len Riskin and Nancy Welsh described recently in their article, “Is that All There is? The ‘Problem’ in Court-Oriented Mediation“, since that approach allows the preferences of lawyers and insurance adjusters to dominate and narrows discussion to legal and economic interests, while disregarding a whole range of other concerns — emotional, interpersonal, behavioral, community — that are no less integral.
Similarly, in “Moving Mediation Back Toward its Historic Roots – Suggested Changes” (in PDF), Joseph P. McMahon, Jr., criticizes the law-centered, “low functioning” approach to mediation that increasingly the legal community has come to accept, characterized by separation of parties with no opportunity for direct dialogue, a focus on monetizing the dispute, while legal issues take precedence over the parties’ own narratives and personal experience as the mediator-expert directs the parties toward settlement. McMahon advocates revolution, overthrowing one model in favor of another. McMahon proposes a solution that restores face-to-face dialogue to its rightful place and returns power to the parties by engaging them in designing a process and an outcome that will best serve their needs.
Unfortunately, public perception remains otherwise. In the popular imagination, the all-powerful mediator shuttles back and forth between separate rooms, controlling the flow of information between parties, and withholding food and drink (and maybe even bathroom breaks) while cajoling or pressuring the parties into accepting a deal. This became amply clear to me over the weekend when Boston Globe Magazine profiled a local mediator. Here’s the picture of mediation the Globe painted for its readers:
Here’s how mediation works: In a civil dispute, going to trial is always risky. Verdicts can either force defendants to pay astronomical amounts or leave plaintiffs without a penny. And so people often decide they’d rather settle — if they can agree on a price. The parties then choose a mediator — both sides must agree on the person — and the process begins, behind closed doors, with both sides stating their cases and demands. Then the mediator separates the two sides into different rooms and begins shuttling back and forth between them. If mediation fails, the parties can agree on another mediator, or the case goes to trial….In mediations, lawyers need someone with a sharp legal mind who’s not afraid to nudge, push, and just plain tell people when they’re wrong…
It’s all there – the shuttle diplomacy behind closed doors, the focus on price, and a process conducted within the long shadow of the courthouse as lawyers wheel and deal. Go read it for yourself. Plainly this tough-headed mediator has earned the title “closer”, brokering deals and producing settlements of the economic and legal issues (if not, perhaps, the less tangible ones). All well and good if that’s what lawyers and their clients truly want – after knowing all the options. But how can we be sure that the public appreciates the difference, when even journalists – trained, professional observers – miss it?
And so I must also ask – can we really call this “mediation”?