What Makes a Good Mediator?

What are the desirable traits of a mediator?  I reviewed five articles on the topic and came up with five characteristics.  Although people use different words, the concepts are fairly consistent from survey to survey.

*  “Humanity” encompasses some characteristics considered desirable by mediators and consumers of mediation services.  To develop trust, the mediator must respect the parties, listen carefully, and identify and relate to the deeper emotions that underlie spoken words.  One author wrote that a mediator must “create the feeling of being ‘at one’ with the disputants and concerned with their well-being.”  More than one author noted that good mediators show an appropriate sense of humor and display optimism.  Other words people use to describe good mediators include, “empathy,” “sympathy,” and “friendly.”   I absolutely believe that identifying and acknowledging each party’s feelings is critical, not just the party who feels “injured.”  Insurance adjusters, bill collectors, and business owners are people, too.  All must be respected as individuals and not be treated mere role-players.

* “Hard working” is how one author put it.  Whether we cook for McDonalds or work for the parties to a dispute, our employers expect us to work.  This concept of simply being diligent includes some of the other qualities authors mention as desirable, such as (a) devoting time before the mediation to prepare — procedurally and substantively, and (b) being “persistent,” “proactive, “persevering,” or “relentless” during the mediation.

*  “Trusted.” A mediator must be acceptable to both sides.  Parties want neutrality.  To talk openly, parties must believe that the mediator will keep confidences and use information in a constructive way that advances the process.  Other words used included, “honest,” “reliable,” “impartial,” “objective,” and “respected.”

*  “Intelligent.”  Parties want mediators who can “grasp issues quickly” and “understand quickly the dynamics and complexities of a dispute.”  Although many mediators believe we should act as facilitators more than problem solvers, parties want mediators who can do both.  Parties and their attorneys want mediators with substantive knowledge pertaining to the issues in dispute.  They want mediators who are able to analyze the issues and evidence, point out risks, and manage difficult clients or opponents.  They want flexible and creative problem solvers rather than someone who will passively accept apparent impasse.  In my view, what distinguishes excellent mediators from the hacks is the ability to use their intelligence in the least obtrusive way possible.  The parties are more likely to say “yes” when they believe the elegant solution was their own rather than proposed or imposed by the mediator.

* “Professional” encompasses a range of concepts.  The most elemental is someone who is prepared, controls his or her own feelings, treats people with dignity, and documents all settlement terms.   A “professional” is someone who possesses the skills of the trade or sport and employs them effectively.  Mediators, like all professionals, must continually work to expand and practice our skills.  Only then can we identify, create, and seize upon opportunities to help the parties achieve their goals.

Jeff Merrick, Merrick Mediation Services, © 2012

Jeff Merrick