Buying the cow: mediators, money, and value

During the many years now I’ve been in the mediation field I like to think I’ve given of my time generously on behalf of our profession.

I’ve devoted countless unpaid hours to serving on numerous boards and committees to advance the ADR field; organizing numerous conferences and workshops for mediators; volunteering in community mediation programs mediating and mentoring new mediators; answering numerous phone calls and emails from people hoping to become mediators; providing tech support to colleagues struggling with ethical dilemmas; helping other ADR professionals master social media like Twitter; supporting fellow ADR bloggers through my project and other endeavors; and sharing what I know through this site, responding to every person who contacts me, including numerous requests over the years from mediators and mediation programs throughout the world seeking help locating resources, people, or information.

My digital door is always open.

But ultimately I’m a business owner and a professional, and there are things I don’t give away for free. Once, a mediator, just starting off, contacted me to ask me to meet them and their business partner on a regular basis to help them set up their business and web site. When I quoted my fee, I got an angry email in response, wondering how I had the nerve to ask to get paid for something they thought I should give them for nothing. This left me scratching my head, wondering why they didn’t respect or value my time as a professional.

I similarly upset some mediators in an advanced mediation training that I taught recently. The organization I was teaching for had provided a comprehensive training manual packed full of many practice forms for the participants to use later. As I was teaching one module, I mentioned that what I’d done in my own practice for this kind of case was to develop a handbook for my clients to assist them in preparing to mediate, suggesting to the participants that they should do the same. One participant raised a hand to ask if I would make my handbook available to them. I told them no, it was proprietary to me and my business, but that they should by all means create materials of their own that would serve them and their clients. I also reminded them that the organization providing the training had generously included in the training manual plenty of client forms for them to use and adapt.

My “no” evidently put some people off. Two participants complained about my refusal to share materials I’d created for my own business. One wondered why I was even there if I didn’t want to share my stuff.

This left me puzzled and a little sad as well.  I was in fact very willing to share – everything I know, the experiences I’ve had, the lessons I’ve learned, it was all available to them, unstintingly. I just declined to share my intellectual property – the content I’d created and customized to use in my business – the work product to distinguish me from the rest of the herd.

Unfortunately they heard only the “no”, and not the rest of my message: As a professional be willing to create your own stuff. Construct your own tools, the better to fit your hand.

Perhaps this view is just a consequence of living in the digital age, when we have come to expect content to be free and where the lines between original content and borrowed material have grown blurred. Surely no one could think that my appearance at the training program constituted a relinquishment of my rights in my own content or the keys to my office door.

But there’s another reason, an issue that haunts our profession. Almost four years ago I sent a message to ADR professionals: “Don’t sell yourself short: why fair compensation should matter to mediators.”

This post urged mediators to value themselves and each other more highly; too often we give both the milk and the entire cow away for free. In our negotiation with the larger world, we ourselves must start placing greater value on our work. To do otherwise diminishes our worth.

To be sure, ours is a profession devoted to helping others. It rests on certain important principles: value creation not value claiming; the notion of the ever-expanding pie; creative allocation of resources; and of course collaboration, teamwork, and sharing. These are noble principles to be sure, embodying the highest aspirations of our field.

This is perhaps why some of us are uncomfortable with professional self-regard. It seems to contradict these cherished ideals.

But just because we place a premium on collaboration does not mean that we must refrain from placing a premium on our services or the content we create as business owners.  As usual, the toughest negotiation is always with ourselves.

13 responses to “Buying the cow: mediators, money, and value

  1. Well said, Diane.

    Indeed, the hardest negotiation is with ourselves – how to value our time and our work product and then how to price it. This problem with free work has unfortunately been exacerbated by free court-annexed mediation panels that have two unintended results: (1) de-valuing the work of most mediators other than the “super stars” who charge and receive up to $1800 per day to mediate commercial cases; and, (2) de-legitimizing the entire profession given the ridiculously low standards to admission.

    With all due respect to life coaches, even THEY have certification standards and educational and mentoring requirements before they can call themselves certified coaches. The push back on professionalizing ADR (it LOOKS like a hobby more often than it does an occupation) is also two-fold (at least): (1) the community mediation people are afraid their “style” will not be given the imprimatur of any certification agency; and, (2) the legal community, thinking mediation is just another word for “settlement conference” doesn’t think they NEED training, education or mentoring to provide the evaluative, position-based, distributive single issue “advice” nor the ability to “bash heads” that they continue to believe is the only way to settle lawsuits. I don’t know what else to say. I too often recently want to throw up my hands and say “let them eat cake.” If they don’t want to pay for highly trained and skilled facilitators and negotiators, let them continue to reach compromised “settlements that make everyone unhappy” rather than enlightened, interest-based agreements that the business people have been creating and teaching for at least an entire generation.

    Oh dear, I’m ranting. And on your blog. When what I SHOULD be doing is brain-storming . . . . anyone want to brain storm?

    • Vickie, you said it well. You’re welcome to rant on my blog any time. We definitely need a seismic shift in ADR.

  2. Cheers to you, Diane, for your frankness on this subject. Thanks for writing what a number of us are thinking and experiencing. As we’ve chatted about, it’s time to start getting really clear about this with our colleagues.

    Vickie, your comments about the low admission bar reminded me of the research Gladwell quotes in one of his most recent books; I heard the research quoted again this past weekend in an NPR interview of the author of “Bounce.” The research suggests that the magic number for real excellence at something is about 10,000 hours of study and practice. So, picture me holding 10,000 hours in one hand — and 40 in the other. Doesn’t quite compute, does it? It’s not just a comparison of entry vs. excellence — it’s a disquieting mile-wide gap.

  3. John Windmueller

    Excellent points! It’s unfortunate that we sometimes need to remind folks of the value and effort that goes into the work we produce.

  4. Hi Diane…and Vickie (should have known I’d find you here ranting!)…

    I don’t know if I can help you brainstorm the solution to the ADR world, but perhaps something having to do with the individual cases you mention. What if each of those interactions (and future ones to come) could be met with a request to negotiate in the way mediators are so well trained to do?

    To the person who asked for your materials in the course, you might be able to ask if they’d be willing to use the training they’ve just received to find a win-win…something like that.

    My 2 cents (adjust for inflation)


  5. Diane, thank you. It’s a fantastic piece and one I would suggest needs to be re-posted on many sites and in many places. I’m sorry you had to receive and deal with both the blindness and attitude. I suppose on a deep level it’s a sad commentary on the way in which so many people today have been driven to lead with motivation based on scarcity and fear. I truly appreciate your ongoing wisdom and always most gracious contributions. I would love to squeeze Boston and Pittsburgh so the driving distance would be two hours and not 10-11.

  6. I appreciate so much the comments coming in from respected colleagues. Tammy, that’s quite a powerful image you’ve created – 40 hours on the one hand, 10,000 hours on the other. Perhaps because I’m a lawyer, I see those hours measured into scales, one side spilling over and heavily weighted, the other side almost empty. I do think it’s going to take a cultural change to get mediators to stop discounting both the worth of their services and the value of education.

    John, it’s always a pleasure to hear from you. And thank you, Lisa, for the suggestion. Value got left on the table in that classroom – a sad loss for everyone. Rest assured that the opinions of colleagues like you hold great value for me.

    Ann, should your travels ever bring you this way, you’ll find a warm welcome here in Boston. Nothing would please me more than to meet in person one day – you, too, John and Lisa. Some day soon, hopefully.

  7. Diane, you took the words out of my mouth, head and heart. If there is a button which when pressed will make me very cross, it is this one – people expecting you to give time, thought, insights, research, tools… the list is endless. There is a world of difference between choosing to give away and it being expected.

    Like you, I have spent countless hours supporting, developing and pioneering. The only people who have done anything with my IP have been the ones who have paid properly for my time. Now, when people ask and I choose to decline, this is how I respond to their surprise: I tell them that I used to share everything until I realised that what was free, sadly, was not appreciated and that was a bad deal for me and as we all know, a bad deal for either side leads inevitably to conflict, so this is part of ‘walking my talk’.

    I have learned to do a better deal with people which is better for them and better for me. And for those who have thick skins and don’t hear this the first time, I smile and invite them to send me an email setting out what they need and what the mutual benefits are.

    Having said all that, I am lucky to have in my orbit, people who really appreciate what it means to share skills and knowledge, and who are a joy to work with, say thank you often and thoughtfully and with whom I find my “flow”.

    A very wise Tai Chi master, Sikung Lowe, told me once: “Never give to someone, something which if you have to take it away will leave them floundering.” Over the years that has come to mean much more than I understood the first time I heard it.

    Vickie: You are not alone!

  8. Diane,
    Thank you for saying this and for saying it very well.

    Over the past thirty years as a designer, teacher, consultant and now facilitator and mediator I have realized that this is the bane of most folks who do communication or ‘brain’ work. Especially those who do this work because they have a ‘calling’ or to ‘help’ people or, god forbid, because they enjoy it. Professional Thinking, Communication or ‘Social Work’ are not, in many societies and cultures, deemed ‘tradeable’ services. Especially if your grandmother or village elder used to do this for free.

    There is historical a bias that puts a greater economic value on tangible goods over the ‘soft’ and consultative services. This becomes particularly pronounced when the ‘consultative’ professional is overtly excited about her work and sees her mission as helping to bring about social justice, peace or build community.

    The consultants who have saved themselves this predicament are the geniuses at places like McKinsey or Accenture who, even were they to do it, would talk about changing their world only at international conferences within closed doors. In front of clients they talk about productivity, profitability and optimizing returns. Clients, needless to say understand that language and immediately bring out their cheque books. Try asking one of the big consulting company’s for free work or their IP material and watch them bend over with laughter!

    In India we face this all the time and I often tell clients or workshop participants, if they push me, that I would be wiling to trade my IP material for some of theirs. If nothing else works I tell them that if their grandmother or paternal uncle does this for free, they really should go to her/him. I then wish them well.

  9. I love this post! Diane, you always seem to put words to those thoughts that hide in the basement of mediators’ minds, the ones that are so important to each of us, yet are so seldom the subject of real debate.

    I agree that we do need to stop underestimating the work that we do. At Community Mediation, we offer free mediation services and all of our mediators are volunteers. I think people often associate free with sub-par and participants and referrers can sometimes expect a less-than-quality service. I also see some volunteers that don’t put all of their effort into the process because they associate volunteerism with something other than professionalism or expertise. So I definitely agree that there needs to be a shift in public opinion about mediation and I think that it helps to have a stated value of the service, be it a mediation session or a training or presentation. For instance we offer a 50-Full Mediation training that is valued at $799 and we offer the training at no-cost. We do not however offer “free” training.

    I think as trainers or facilitators, especially those operating their own private practice, we should feel comfortable with asking for compensation for sharing our training materials. As trainers, we’re providing people with transfomative, life-changing skills, skills people can use for their entire lives. This is a lot more than just magic beans.

    It’s great to see Tammy and Vickie responding to this as well. I’ve been enthralled by Cafe Mediate and I feel like I learn so much from all of you.

  10. Amanda, Ashok, and Rick, thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    Amanda and Ashok, I agree with your observations, dear friends – it’s unfortunate that because mediation is deemed by some a “calling” (can you hear a choir of angels sing out that word?), for some folks the very notion that ADR is actually a business besmirches mediation’s purity.

    Rick, I am happy to be the id of the mediation profession. Someone’s got to say this stuff out loud; otherwise, we’ll never talk about it with the honesty it deserves. Thanks for letting me know I’m not alone. My roots are in community mediation; it is important and honorable work. I know that they often serve economically fragile neighborhoods, and there is great need for services provided pro bono.

    So, Rick, I couldn’t agree more when you say that “free” doesn’t mean “poor quality”. Indeed, I often have wished that community mediation programs would value their services more highly. Last year when the community mediation programs providing services in Massachusetts courts lost their state funding because of court budget cutbacks, instead of going on strike they continued to provide those services for free because they believed it was the noble thing to do. Never mind that they needed that funding to pay much-needed administrators who oversee such programs. I wish they had instead acted in a way that conveyed that they believed in the value of those services – and in a way that would have wised up those in the court who short-sightedly cut that funding. An opportunity to educate those who hold the purse-strings was lost.

  11. I can’t stress enough how important the work of mediators actually is. We do what attorneys, judges, police officers and therapists aren’t doing. We listen and we facilitate a process that empowers participants. By not judging, by not suggesting our own ideas, by not restricting what they talk about or how they talk about it, we tell participants that what they have to contribute is important, that it is valuable, and that they are the person that is best equipped to resolve their conflict. We put so much value on our participants that we can often scramble to offer our services, sometimes for free, and we often stretch ourselves beyond our own resources in the process. We need to place just as much importance and value on ourselves. We do difficult, effective and amazing work and if we don’t believe in it enough to put a value on it, our participants and the people and organizations that fund us won’t see that value either.

  12. Ruthy Kohorn Rosenberg

    Thank you for bringing up this subject, and for all of these thoughtful comments. I think we’ve become enmeshed in a very unproductive model. I grew up in community mediation, it’s values are core to the way I work. However, I don’t think the values are in conflict with people being able to make a living on par with other professionals. We need to rethink what we’re doing here because it’s not sustainable.