This is the second of a two-part piece looking at the impact of Coronavirus lockdown on the work of a professional mediation company. In part one, UK Mediation CEO Dr Mike Talbot looked at professional standards in mediation practice. Here, Mike discusses mediation training standards.
Mediation: harder than it looks?
Quite a few of the 5,000 or so trainees who have attended our accredited training courses in the last 21 years have been surprised to find that there is a bit more to it than they initially thought.
From a distance, it looks like you listen to people, kind of paraphrase what they say, keep order, nod a lot, get them to turn-take and problem-solve, and then write it all up at the end.
And I am talking about the kind of mediation that we at UK Mediation specialise in: a facilitative & transformative process of resolving interpersonal conflict; not the kind of evaluative settlement conferencing done in shuttle meetings, largely by legal practitioners trained in ‘Civil Mediation’.
But, as any seasoned mediator would tell you: there’s a bit more to it than that!
One of the attractions for me, when I stopped being a full-time psychotherapist and started becoming a mediator, is the very fact that there really IS more to it than that. Doing mediation consistently well is quite hard. It takes a lot of skill, a great deal of self-awareness, a moderate amount of knowledge, and a whole lot of practice.
Training people to do less
Paradoxically, given the above comments, becoming a proficient mediator can for a lot of people mean doing less of what you normally do. That is, if what you normally do is guide people towards solutions, advise, arbitrate, make solution-focussed interventions, or even go the whole way and tell people what they have to do.
So, a lot of the training groups that we have worked with over the years can, usually by day three of a five day course, have a jaw-dropping realisation that none of this is going to work if you want to be a real mediator.
And this is not something that can be accomplished overnight. In my own experience, even though I had a good initial mediation training course, I did not feel competent AND CONFIDENT as a mediator until after about four months, a dozen or so cases, and having undertaken some quality case supervision. Learning to mediate well is not a quick process!
Online training during Coronavirus lockdown
Since late March, as we well know, there have not been any face-to-face training courses. A couple of mediation training providers have just put everything online; some have said, ‘Lets wait until it’s all over’, and others – like us – have wondered how to continue delivering and yet maintain high mediator training standards in a climate where face-to-face interaction is not possible.
We are an organisation of qualified Adult Educators, as well as being practising mediators, and UK Mediation is highly regarded as a setter of standards for mediation practice and training. My own priority – virus or no virus – was to keep it that way.
So, over a few weeks in April, we held discussions with our external accrediting body (a quality-approving organisation that oversees our training standards and links us to the UK’s official register of qualifications) and the people who award us our Quality Assurance Standard, the ISO-9001. What we came up with (without boring you with the detail) is a blended programme made up of a combination of three days of interactive, online workshops, and a three-day live event to be held when this is all over.
We do not believe for a moment that you can fully train mediators online. But what we can do online is impart knowledge about mediation, demonstrate skills, conduct ability-building exercises, discuss and debate why we do things the way we do, and have people understand and learn the step-by-step process of interpersonal mediation.
And the part that has to wait for the face-to-face module that we will be delivering later in the year, subject to the whims of the virus, will be all about building confidence in practising mediation skills on simulated cases, dealing with disruptive behaviours and critical incidents; timing, non-verbal cues, voice tone and inflexion, vocabulary, live re-framing, etc., etc.. Crucially important for the live training is getting feedback on your skills and getting to know how you come across to people: something that could never be done online. Oh yes, and we will also include learning how to do less!
The importance of maintaining standards
Right since we began in 1999, we have wanted to train the highest quality mediators. This we have managed to do by using qualified adult educators who are themselves practising mediators, allowing external scrutiny and quality assurance of all of our training content and delivery, and setting the bar high for people to achieve on our accredited courses.
There is no reason for us to lower our standards just because just because of the pandemic, and we certainly do not want to pretend, for purely commercial reasons, that you can train as a mediator just by taking an online course. Subtle interactional skills require some experiential learning in the presence of professionals who really know what they are talking about.
There IS more to it than trainees tend to think. Learning to refrain from solution-giving and arbitrating is a really tricky process for a lot of people, and needs the support and guidance of an experienced mediator-educator in the live setting. And getting to the point of being able to mediate for real requires far more than can be taught online, especially when thinking about the combination of competence AND CONFIDENCE that it takes for an interpersonal mediator to be able to work safely and effectively.