Preparing mediators for practice: mediation training or mediation education?

mediation training raises many questionsRecently the alert I set up to monitor appearances of the keyword “mediation” in Twitter posts pointed me to the following message: “Just got back from Civil Mediation Training (30 hrs) to be a Qualified Neutral”. The message took me aback.

30 hours? To be a “qualified neutral”? Qualified? For what?

The persistence of the notion that 30 or 40 hours is sufficient time to train neutrals has long troubled me, a trainer of mediators. It is one advanced by court-connected mediation programs, some private training companies, and mediators themselves. It is even codified in law and court rule. But to be confronted in this way by someone’s certainty that 30 hours prepared them adequately to mediate civil disputes was jolting.

In the trainings I am involved with, we make it clear to participants that a basic mediation training provides an orientation to the field of mediation but that hard work and further learning lie ahead. The best students are those who come away with the humble understanding that they do indeed have a long way to go toward mastery. The ones who keep me awake at night are those who already have their business cards printed on the last day of the training.

My colleague to the north, Tammy Lenski, is clearly troubled, too. She writes:

Is there a qualitative difference between training mediators and educating mediators? I think so and I’m going to put myself far out on the limb here. No doubt one of you will want to shake me right off.

While training will likely always have its place in the ADR world, I’d like to see greater embrace of educating and less commitment to short-term, “let-me-call-myself-certified” training.

Training is traditionally concerned with the development of skills and preparation for specific jobs or roles.

Education is traditionally concerned with the development of the intellect, stretching and learning to use one’s mind.

Like Tammy, I have to wonder out loud whether it’s time for our field to look closely and critically at what it takes to prepare people to become effective mediators. I know that 30 hours or 40 won’t do it. But what kind, degree, and amount of training or education or practical experience under supervision – or some combination of those – will produce a competent mediator?

18 responses to “Preparing mediators for practice: mediation training or mediation education?

  1. Diane, thanks for adding your thoughts to the subject. When I do basic mediation training, on the last day I tell participants: “If I catch you calling yourselves certified I’ll send my Newfoundland after you. You’re not certified — you’re certificated. You took a training and you got a certificate of attendance. No one’s certifying you here after 30 or 40 hours because, frankly, most of you can’t really even mediate your way out of a cardboard box yet.” Sound harsh. Perhaps. But honest, honest, honest.

  2. Diane Levin

    If only they knew that Hugo is a great, big, sweet marshmallow of a dog…you’ll have to come up with a scarier threat!

    Seriously, though, Tammy, I agree. It’s not harsh, it’s the truth. What is depressing though is that despite those warnings I still run into former trainees of mine who are calling themselves “certified mediators”. Gaaahhh! Thanks for weighing in–it’s always good to hear from you.

  3. Hello Tammy & Diane,

    Just to chime in- Safe Horizon Mediation Center (of which trained me) offers the 36 hour, 5 day Basic Mediation Training.

    Add to that, there is a one-day-a-week for 14 weeks apprenticeship. This part of the training is what gave me, the certificated “mediator”, the hands on training with a professional mentor that i think is what helps prepare a mediator to actually… well mediate.

    But wait, one still can not mediate alone! This allows you to co-mediate cases. You have to take a video test and pass in order to finally be able to mediate alone. If you want to be able to give yourself the title “certified”, that then comes after passing the video and then completing 30 cases alone.

    I think the process is very thorough and of course speaking for myself only, it helped prepare me greatly.

  4. Diane Levin

    Jeff, thanks for describing the process mediators undergo at Safe Horizon to prepare for practice. It sounds as if Safe Horizon takes seriously its responsibility to developing mediators. That’s an extraordinary process you’ve outlined. It’s reassuring to learn of organizations like this. If only more were like that!

    My concern however remains with the many programs that provide no such support. Too many training programs, and I can think of one particular egregious example right here in Massachusetts, provide mediators with 30 or so hours of training, pat them on the head, and then let them loose on an unsuspecting public, to the detriment of the profession. In my opinion, that’s the height of irresponsibility. And with no offense to Safe Horizon, I remain concerned about the use of the word “certification” by private organizations (like for example’s recent program – sorry, Jim), because of how easily consumers mistake private certification for public licensing.

    I also remain troubled that there is no public oversight or public credentialing of mediation training programs either, since mediators are only as good as the program that prepares them. Again, I know of yet another program led by trainers who IMHO do not possess the skills, experience, or depth of knowledge to teach people to become mediators, yet year after year this program continues to crank out mediators – poorly trained and ill prepared mediators. That’s the danger. It’s caveat emptor out there, for the prospective mediators seeking training and for the public.

    Jeff, thanks for renewing my sense of optimism – I’ve heard great things about Safe Horizon, and it’s good to learn about their commitment to excellence. I wish that all programs operated with that kind of integrity and care.

  5. Hello Diane, Tammy and Jeff. This is a very timely subject for me as I think I am a lone voice in the UK and I risk “instant death” every time I say something about the inadequacy of 24/30/40 hours training. It is not a popular theme! I risk the same every time I pipe up and say that regulation is not something that will fix this. I say so because every time we have a discussion over here about standards or “regulation” it all seems to hinge on something which is designed not to exclude people. Sadly, the very lowest requirements are for workplace mediation training which to my mind needs more “education”, special skills and a lot of experience.

    Since I published my research in 2006 I have suggested that there might be something of a selection process to identify if the prospective candidate has certain base line competence in some essential attributes, strengths and behaviours which are IMHO absolutely essential to being an effective mediator and IMHO not one of them can be trained or even fine tuned in 40 hours. The process would not prevent the candidate from pursuing the training (free will) but they might have a better idea about what they needed to concentrate on and be given tailored coaching to suit. I know this means a lot more effort but I have this strong feeling that if things continue with such a low base line there will be “mischief” in the profession and the damage to the reputation of mediation will be very badly damaged. Am I the only one who has done the risk assessment?

    My most passionate plea is that training with PowerPoint, vast manuals of irrelevant fluff peppered with a few role plays is recognised for what it is: a commercial product with a very short shelf life. Sadly very, very few who train mediators are actually trainers or educators and I don’t mean that mediation education belongs with academics because that is certainly not the answer. It belongs with practising mediators but they need to be much more credible in terms of methodology and setting excellent standards which reflect current knowledge and practice about how people learn new ways of being (not doing).

    To my mind if the training was of much higher quality and required more commitment and investment from those who thought they might make mediation a career then the question of regulation post-training would be less daunting.

    I have managed to up my own training to 72 hours (and still get hired!) and I mentor several aspiring mediators long after their “training”. I still get requests for “manuals” and PowerPoint slides which I successfully resist! I do worry about the vast pool of “trained” “certified” and “accredited” mediators out there who have such an influence in people’s lives and who are navigating their own education without a rudder!

  6. Diane Levin

    Amanda, I feel honored that you took the time to add the perspective from across the Atlantic. Your own experience sounds very familiar to those of us in the U.S.

    I don’t know what it will take to turn the tide. It does seem to me that in the call for credentialing of mediators we cannot talk about the mediators until we talk about those who are training them. In the meantime, I shudder to think about the many who continue to think that $700 and 30 or 40 hours of training give them what they need to call themselves mediators – and the mediation trainers who are content to let them think so. Thanks again, Amanda, I always appreciate hearing from you.

  7. You are welcome Diane! It is a very important topic which deserves attention and one I believe will be increasingly talked about. Thank you for raising it.

    I must apologise to Geoff Sharp for spelling his name incorrectly! I know perfectly well how to spell your name Geoff!

  8. Diane Levin

    Amanda, no fear, you didn’t misspell Geoff’s name. “Mediator Jeff”, who commented earlier on this post and to whom you directed your initial comment along with Tammy and me is the nom de plume of mediator Jeff Thompson, a mediator based in New York. So when you addressed your remarks to “Diane, Tammy and Jeff” you got it right and didn’t offend Geoff Sharp in the least. Not to worry! I suspect that there’ll be more confusion now that there are two mediators, Geoff and Jeff, who blog. Thanks again, Amanda!

  9. Diane,
    I agree with you regarding the concern about training. You can’t even qualify to be a plumber with 40 hours training. What profession allows you to go to town in the profession with such limited training?

    The reality is that most of what makes a good mediator is learned on the streets, and in mediations or conflicts. I think the volunteer programs that allow mediators to cut their teeth on mediations are very helpful.

    If those aren’t available, then I think continued simulation of situations in classes or workshops would help. Just like the military with their Top Gun Simulation Schools, mediation requires a Top Gun Training Process to help mediators become better in their trade.

  10. Diane Levin

    Steve, thanks for your comment. Not sure plumbers are the most appropriate analogy here, since the plumbers I’ve met are highly skilled, and it takes training and time to get good at that work as it does at any licensed career, whether doctor or dog groomer. I would not wish to offend plumbers or demean their profession by saying that “even plumbers” require more than 40 hours of training.

    But your point is well taken. It does take time to prepare for any profession, and 40 hours is simply not enough. The question though is, what kind of and how much training? Simulations have their educational use but with limits. Mediation of actual cases under the supervision of qualified mentors is essential. But practical experience untethered from a theoretical foundation will be useless – hence Tammy’s good questions about education v. training. Again, to add yet another horror story about mediation training, I know of one program that has no theoretical foundation to support the skills they are teaching in their so-called mediation training. In fact, their lead trainer takes pains to never mention the word “negotiation”, and no, this is not a training in transformative mediation. And yet this program claims that their training is suitable for attorneys who will be mediating litigated cases.

    The problem though is how do we decide what kind and how much training or education is needed? And who is qualified to conduct that training or teach those programs? We better figure that out soon.

  11. I absolutely agree that proper training is needed before anyone should be able to make claims to being a skilled or “certified” mediator, and I very much agree that mediation takes serious time, training and practice to be mastered. But at the same time I do feel the need to voice a concern about the cost of many programs and how absolutely alienating those costs can be for many many people. $1000 for a four day program only makes sense if you already are a working professional. Sometimes the best mediators come from the classes within which they mediate. It is a shame to make it almost impossible for some financially challenged folks to become functional professional mediators.

  12. Diane Levin

    Megan-Fay, thanks for visiting this site and for your comment. I agree with you that we need to do all that we can to ensure greater diversity in practice. The lack of diversity is a long-standing issue. However, I don’t personally view cost of mediation training as the concern that you do. Most mediation centers that offer training (particularly those that are non-profit) do offer partial or full scholarships, or allow for exchanges of services (such as marketing or administrative or clerical) for training. I can think of any number of programs in New England right off the top of my head that do so routinely. In addition, community mediation programs occasionally have obtained grants that allow them to provide full scholarships, particularly to ensure that those who are economically disadvantaged can get the training they need to mediate neighborhood cases and support their communities.

    But for a number of organizations, training is an income source – why shouldn’t such organizations be able to make money like any other business? Moreover, if people want to enter mediation as a profession, isn’t it reasonable to expect that you will have to pay money towards obtaining education and training, just as you would for any other profession? Why should mediation training be any different?

    My concern lies more with the ethics of training and the representations that are made about what such training will qualify people for. And I remain concerned about the quality of training – remember that there is no public oversight of mediation training programs – any organization or individual can provide mediation training. No credentialing is necessary. These days I am much more worried about these issues than whether people will be able to afford mediation training. Even if training is available for free or low cost, how can any of us be assured that the training will be any good? We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us still.

    Thanks again, Megan-Fay – I appreciate the points you’ve raised here.

  13. I’m a mediator and trainer of mediators in Romania, Europe, a country where mediation as an institution came to life only 3 years ago. That mediation was practiced before the law of mediation appeared, that’s beyond question – as a student of conflict and conflict resolution, I can safely say that mediation is as old as conflict. But as an institutionalized way of solving conflicts, it has a very short history in my country and I don’t know if I have enough experience as a mediator and as a trainer to make a real contribution to this discussion. But I just wanted to bring to your attention the followings:

    1. In Romania, there is an independent public institution called the Council of Mediation, composed of mediators elected every 2 years by the General Assembly of Mediators (basically, every mediator can vote, and there are now some 800 of them). This is the institution that govern the profession of mediation in Romania. It authorizes mediators (one cannot practice mediation in Romania without a formal authorization from the Council) based on some condition to be fulfilled by the applicant, one of them being “to prove that he or she has attended a training course provided by an accredited training institution”. That means that training of mediators in Romania cannot be done by anyone without going through the process of accreditation by the Council of Mediation. The Council verifies if the applicant institution respects a minimum accepted standards in doing the training (minimum 80 hours of training, face-to-face, with at least 70% of time dedicated to simulations, role-playings, case studies; that training is done by experienced mediators who also have teaching credentials, especially on adult professional education; and so on). There are only 8 accredited training programs in a country of 20 mil., and they have trained aprox. 800 mediators since 2006. These rules are imo as good as the next. I don’t think that a training program, being 30/40/70/80 hours long, it is enough to make a mediator – only real life practice can do this. It takes case after case, to knock your head on difficult real situation, where everything is at stake , white nights of thinking about the best strategy to adopt for the next morning mediation meeting. A good mediation training can help, and certainly can make a difference, but it is just the A-B out of A-Z.

    2. as a researcher with the Center of Conflict Studies, I’ve done a short comparative study of mediation implementation in Europe. The study brought to light huge differences between EU member countries – there are countries that have a lot of regulations, standards, rules and codes governing mediation, and where mediation is an almost complete failure; and there are countries where mediation has been a long-living success without any regulation at all (see Denmark, where mediation has been practiced since 1795, but has no laws regulating mediation and the profession of mediation – basically, everyone can be a mediator as long as it serves the purpose: to settle a conflict outside the court of justice, by peaceful means).

    So, I don’t know if there can be a sensible answer to the problem you have raised. If rules governing the mediators’ training should be adopted, who’s going to make them, and then enforce them? And who can safely say which method of training is the best? Or what the standards should be? I think that a responsible training program should give to attendants a minimum set of tools, mandatory to everyone who wants to practice mediation – a basic set of concepts, methods and techniques. And then let personal qualities, market and life itself make the difference between a talented mediator and a failed one. Regulation generally leads to over-regulation, and this certainly doesn’t get the job done – settle conflicts outside and before reaching the courts of justice, with attention not only to what’s at stake materially, but also emotionally. If that can be done by a person with 30 or 80 or null hours of training, I’d say that’s just fine.

  14. Diane Levin

    Christian, thank you for taking the time to visit this site and share your perspective from Romania. This is so helpful, and I am grateful to you for your comments. By the way, I agree with your point about regulation – it can stifle innovation. You’ve also raised some difficult questions – the same questions that dog any discussion of credentialing mediators. Thanks again for your thoughtful viewpoint.

  15. Always happy to talk to people that understand the language of mediation (unfortunately, there are only a few in my country). And also congrats for the blog – it is really fascinating.

  16. Diane Levin

    Christian, thanks so much! I hope you’ll continue to stop by – I’d really welcome your views. Any time!

  17. Michael Scott

    Hello Diane and the rest who have posted wise comments … I came across this site after searching for “Mediation Training,” and am hopeful for some much needed guidance and more insight. On the educational front, I have an MS in Criminology and a MA in Negotiation, Conflict Resolution, and Peacebuilding. Along with teaching Criminology at the community college level, I mentioned to a (NCRP) professor that (after graduation) I was planning on opening my own family mediation firm. She quickly informed me that my education alone would not prepare me for such, since all I had was “theoretical” knowledge and no practical experience.

    I was told that I could gain the “hands-on” experience I lacked by attending a basic mediation training program. I have probably read just about every training program offered online and off, and I am still unsure which might be better for me than another. I have my preferences, i.e. anything by American Institute of Mediation (AIM), J. Malamed, N. Meierding, or S. Rosenberg, but as Megan-Fay mentioned, most programs are $1000.00 for 4-days training, and more for 5-days (40 hrs.), not to mention food, hotel, etc.

    I emailed K. Seat who thought that possibly my MA in NCRP might be enough to get me started, and L. J. Berman, who thought that I would need a 40-hr mediation course and start doing some mediation, to get some experience … Truthfully, on one hand, (since I am unemployed) I cannot afford the cost of doing anything, but on the other, I cannot afford not to … I was advised to try and get on with a mediation firm and have them train me (as opposed to paying for it), but that seems unlikely as I have called a few and that is not in their best interest.

    I truly believe that I have a lot to offer, but am not confidant to go ahead on my own without training. Lee Jay said that mediation was so “experiential” that I would have to “get into the room, get involved, practice with some simulations, feel the mistakes and what works, and develop the comfort level and confidence that comes with sitting in that chair with two disputing people staring at you (or alternatively ignoring you!)”.

    That I believe.

    Michael Scott


  18. Diane Levin

    Hi, Michael,

    Thanks kindly for visiting my blog and for your comment. I do appreciate that you stopped by.

    I’m going to ask you a great favor. Could you read the following post first, including the linked articles it references, and then get back to me if you still have questions?

    It may save both of us time. The short answer is that theory is important, but so, too, is praxis. But please read this material and then let me know if you still have questions you’re grappling with. Thanks again.