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The Down Side of Experience

     by Kathy King

We might look up to seasoned mediators.  Sometimes with good reason.  Honestly, there is much to be gained as a mediator with increasing experience.  Mediators learn what works and what doesn’t.  We gain skills about when to let a questionable comment go and when to “reign” parties in.   We acquire skills for determining when venting is productive and when it isn’t.  We understand how to use levers to move people forward.  The list of skills gained with experience goes on and on.

It is also true that with experience can come other, not so positive, habits on the part of the mediator.  One problematic tendency picked up by experienced mediators is shortcutting the story telling by each individual.   It takes time and patience to give each person the opportunity to share what they believe is important.  If not careful, mediators stop taking the time necessary to step inside the frame of reference of each individual.  While we might hone our listening skill with experience, we might also begin making assumptions before we have allowed the parties to fully share their experiences and concerns.   

Experienced mediators can struggle with keeping their solution oriented ideas to themselves.  It’s difficult to refrain from making suggestions when this is your fifth, or fiftieth, case over the same topic.  After seeing what has worked in similar cases, the mediator can often begin to see solutions long before the parties get there. 

Making suggestions about possible outcomes is, of course, not the role of an Early Settlement mediator.  Suggestion making can, however, happen in very subtle ways.  Consider the comment, “Have you considered trying….”  This is a comment that on the surface seems rather benign.  It seems neutral.  If we consider how it feels to be on the receiving end of the comment "Have you considered trying..." it might feel more like a suggestion.  What the participant might be hearing is "Don't you think you should try...."  

Experienced mediators must remain vigilant in empowering individuals to find their own solutions.  This self-directed focus is central to the Facilitative Model used by Early Settlement mediators.  In contrast to the model used by Early Settlement, mediators using an Evaluative Model do evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each party's case and shares settlement options.  Use of the facilitative model by Early Settlement mediators is meant to place more control of the process and the outcome in the hands of the parties.         


In order to refrain from guiding the outcome of the mediation it is helpful to maintain an attitude of learning from the people at the table.  Each of the parties to mediation is the teacher of their own reality.  In Early Settlement's basic training, mediators are trained to see conflict as an opportunity for positive change and personal growth.  This positive growth can only occur when people gain ownership by solving their own problems. 

Agreement writing is another place where the experienced mediator can insert themselves if not vigilant.  While we must make sure the agreement has adequate details for clarity, we are not there to decide what details should be included.  It’s much too easy to begin making suggestions about the “best way” to get things done.  Remember, each person's buy-in to the solution is due to crafting the agreement.  Without the personal buy-in accomplished from fashioning the agreement, the parties will be less likely to follow through with the agreement.

Keeping a mindset of receptivity and respect for the decision making of the mediation participants keeps the seasoned mediator from exerting their own will in mediation. Respecting each mediation participant and their right to design their own outcome can help us exercise the up-side of gained experience while alleviating the down.  

Have any comments or questions?  Feel free to share your thoughts below.

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