Mediators often identify themselves according to the particular type of subject matter they mediate: divorce, construction, commercial, etc. The idea that they have is that it is important to be well-versed or expert in the subject matter area in order to mediate those types of cases. In contrast, mediators who have developed an expertise in mediation, per se, have historically felt that they can mediate any type of case. These mediators often feel that it is crucial to develop a mediator mindset in which they maintain a strict neutrality regarding the parties and the decisions to be made in the case. They also believe strongly that parties who are distressed by a conflict want to have the kind of conversation in which each party feels heard and understood. Further, they feel that the parties want to be the ones to develop a solution to their disagreement, and with the right type of hands-off mediator interventions, the parties are capable of doing so. These mediators also feel that the type of expertise that is required for that type of mediation involves a great deal of training, experience, self-reflection, mentoring, and inclination. Who is right?
I recently came to the conclusion that the difference between mediators who need to be well-versed in the substantive area in which they mediate and mediators who can mediate any type of case, is whether the parties are coming to the mediator to provide guidance and advice regarding the structuring of a solution to a problem or whether they are coming to the mediator because they are having a disagreement and want the mediator to help them have a productive dialogue that will hopefully lead to a resolution of the disagreement. I have dubbed the former types of mediators as “structural” mediators. In a recent article, I dubbed the latter type of mediators as “interpersonal” mediators. However, that might give the impression that these mediators only mediate interpersonal issues, which is far from the truth. I have come to realize that it would be better to call these mediators “impasse” mediators.
I think it is crucial for structural mediators and impasse mediators to have a respectful, focused and productive discussion to explore the services that each provides. Each type of mediator would undoubtedly learn from this discussion what other types of mediators have to offer, and would also understand more fully what the strengths and limitations of their own service are. This type of discussion and analysis has not been done. Rather, each group of mediators avoids engaging in this disagreement (conflict avoidance?) and has simply decided to accept the various “styles” of mediation as though they are interchangeable and depend only upon the preference of the mediator. However, I do not believe that many mediators truly believe that.
I believe that if we devoted the time and energy to discussing, respectfully, what structural mediators have to offer and what impasse mediators have to offer, we could come to a mutual understanding regarding these different types of mediations. That understanding would serve as a means for parties to identify the type of mediator who can best address their needs and desires. It is entirely possible that in any given case, parties may start out needing one type of mediator and may find that at a given point they need to switch to a different type of mediator to move forward in their case. Without an understanding of the strengths of each type of mediator, parties would not be able to take advantage of what each type has to offer and would not be able to get the best service possible.