Why Trying to Make Mediation a Profession is Contrary to its Purpose

Mediation Mindfulness Discipline

I hear many people in the mediation world talk about, or write about,  wanting to make mediation a profession and I’ve always felt uncomfortable with this notion. The main explanation for this drive seems to be the idea that it gives the practice ‘credibility’, which I also don’t really understand as the process already has credibility whether those who practise it are ‘professionals’ or not. It also seems to move towards the idea that a mediator must have lots of ‘qualifications’ and ‘agreed standards’ –“And, of course, our qualifications and exams and agreed standards should be the ones that are used”, say the organisations that advocate the idea of professionalising mediation practice.

But what do we mean by a ‘profession’?

Here’s an excerpt from wikipedia commenting on the term ‘Professional’:

Although professional training appears to be ideologically neutral, it may be biased towards those with higher class backgrounds and a formal education. In his 2000 book, Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System that Shapes Their Lives, Jeff Schmidt observes that qualified professionals are less creative and diverse in their opinions and habits than non-professionals, which he attributes to the subtle indoctrination and filtering which accompanies the process of professional training. His evidence is both qualitative and quantitative, including professional examinations, industry statistics and personal accounts of trainees and professionals. 

While uncomfortable to read it would seem fairly self-evident that most professions are not representative of the communities they serve in terms of gender or ethnicity or even ‘class’ and formal educational experience, whether we are talking about the legal profession, accountancy, medical profession or others. We can all ‘wish it were not true’, but it is. So why would mediation want to become a ‘profession’ – because it will be the first one to be representative? Does it look that way when we consider the ‘professional bodies’ presently suggesting they represent mediation activity in the UK? No, the predominant membership is white and highly educated and even excessively male dominated in one organisation that claims representative authority.

My experience of working in community mediation has been one of  representative diversity in all areas that we might normally consider, whether gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age, ‘class’, disability, ‘professional status’ and more, and in community mediation which is my background of working, this diversity applied to the clients we worked with as well. The community mediation movement has continued and developed without the need for ‘professionalisation’ for the last 40 years in this country. Despite accusations of it being ‘fractured’, 40 years is a pretty clear sign of a sustainable movement and philosophy.

One of my earliest experiences of mediation was as a Case Manager in a community mediation service in London and a commonly allocated pairing of mediators was a lady of 70 who was, in her own expression, ‘barely literate’ and a senior partner in a central London law firm who also volunteered as a mediator. Together they would go out into the community supporting neighbours in dispute to create a more satisfactory way forward in their neighbour relationship.

And I sometimes wonder….would that highly capable mediator of 70 who wouldn’t want to do ‘exams and tests’ to become a mediator be able to become a ‘professional’ mediator if such a thing became expected in future? What would be the justification for excluding someone such as her from practising as a mediator? For me, one of the beautiful aspects of working in community mediation has always been that when anyone asked me ‘who is a typical mediator, what is their background?’ I’ve always been able to say that there is no such thing as a ‘typical mediator or typical background from which they come’ as I have seen people from every background or characteristic you could name become an effective mediator.

Mediation does not draw upon ‘academic theories’ and complex concepts because, as the mediator, we are not present to ‘assess, diagnose and prescribe’ for people what they should do, we are present to create a safe constructive space for creative dialogue – the more our heads are filled with abstract theories and complex analysis – and our own projections – the less room there is for that dialogue.

Unlike a Lawyer, a Doctor or a Chartered Accountant or most other professions  where ‘assessment, diagnosis and prescription’ of the issue presented are the expected actions of the role concerned, as a Mediator we deliberately monitor and challenge our impulse to assess, diagnose and prescribe and so the role is very different to that of the more commonly understood professions. It is, indeed a ‘discipline’, a self-monitoring that acknowledges within ourselves whether we are trying to ‘fix’ things for people rather than help them to create their own answers to their difficulty, and uses skills and conduct that ensure that impulse rarely sees the light of day while we are mediating.

If I have a problem in relation to the law, I haven’t spent years and years learning the relevant statutes and rulings and applications that would apply to my difficulty and so I would go to a lawyer to advise me, and, probably, to act on my behalf as my advocate. Similarly, if I have a medical problem I might go to a doctor to hear their view of how I might be treated and unless I wish for a second opinion or wish to take an alternative health route instead, I would again hand over my situation to their ‘greater wisdom’ and do as they prescribe.

But if someone has a relationship breakdown with another person such as a neighbour, or work colleague or business client or user of a service such as a parent of a child with special needs, or a student at a university, or as a young person whose difficult relationship with their parents has led them to become homeless, there is no set of books or records or precedents that inform the way forward in that relationship, as the only person who has the expertise in the situation is the person themselves – and so only they can ‘assess, diagnose and prescribe’ what will be right for them. No one else can, as no-one else has the knowledge and history about them to be able to decide for them ‘what’s best’. The relationship, and its breakdown, arises from the unique combination of actions, life experiences, values, viewpoints etc. that arise within the relationship. There is no outside ‘expert’ knowledge that can ‘fix’ that – but there will be plenty of people who will project their own assumptions about how to fix it on to those involved – we just have to hope that none of them are involved as the mediators in the situation.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (“The more it changes, the more it stays the same”).

But my concern about attempts to make mediation a profession is that many mediators are starting to consider that they do know ‘what’s best’ for people and so are no longer mediating but directing, or moving more towards a form of arbitration or advice or consultancy. The underlying philosophies of self-determination or ‘ownership‘ as I usually refer to it, that apply to mediation are at risk of being lost if we expect all mediators to be ‘highly educated’ with ‘academic qualifications’. There seems to be a confusion between the idea of facilitating a discussion and knowing ‘complex conflict theory’. When the latter becomes important for a mediator it suggests he/she is going to analyse a conflict and come up with a ‘fix’. This misses the point of mediation entirely. The second we think, as mediators, that we can ‘apply a theoretical concept’ to someone’s dispute we are simply playing self-indulgent games with a person’s difficult situation rather than focusing on helping them to reflect on, and express and resolve their dispute or relationship breakdown and create their own conceptual models of their situation – which may not match the ones we saw in a book. That practice doesn’t need ‘academic qualifications, it needs a willingness to listen intently, to support people in the creation of new ideas and actions and approaches to their difficult relationships so that they can move forward. Mediation is a mindful, skills-based process not a knowledge-based or abstract analytical process.

I see mediation as a ‘discipline’, much like a practice such as tai-chi or yoga. Something that you don’t get ‘qualifications’ in, but where you focus continuously on improving your own practice, sometimes with the support of a teacher or mentor but the bottom line is – it is your own practice and so with principles and clear underpinning philosophies to refer to for guidance it then becomes a personal journey towards continuous improvement. The hierarchies and ‘Head Honcho Mediators’ then don’t exist nor are they necessary as no-one has the monopoly on ‘perfect practice’ and we don’t create Gods and Masters to whom we can abdicate all responsibility for saying ‘how to do it’ while we follow along, tongues lolling, waiting for the next breadcrumb of wisdom or latest ‘dictat’ to be bestowed upon us.

There’s an egotism to the idea of making mediation a profession that doesn’t fit with the aims of the process. If we see the client as fully able to take responsibility for themselves without expert assessment, diagnosis and prescription, surely our own practice should be approached in the same way. That’s not to exclude listening to other mediators with regard to how they practice and learning from what they say, where we feel it offers new insights, just as participants in the process listen to each other and learn different viewpoints and understandings and selectively make use of them to improve their situation. But where there is no fixed model of mediating that all subscribe to, as now, any attempts to professionalise the practice of mediation seems to be a way of trying to fit everyone within a strait-jacket and as the quote above says, this leads to practitioners being …. less creative and diverse in their opinions and habits than non-professionals….as a result of…. the subtle indoctrination and filtering which accompanies the process of professional training. 

We already see this in the restrictive views taken about what constitutes ‘Family Mediation practice’ in the UK and further future attempts to control and define what this means, without any recourse to research and comparison to show that the approach is actually any more effective than other approaches. Having lots of structures in place for monitoring, review, oversight by ‘advanced’ practitioners is only any use if what those structures are embedding is proven to be ‘best practice’ and there is yet to be comparative study to show that it is.

Professionalisation establishes a passive-client-with-active-‘expert’ relationship more akin to a parent-child relationship than an adult-adult one where, in the latter, we see the client as fully able to resolve their own difficulty but asking for support in doing so. Alongside the parent-child mindset we see moves towards compulsion regarding the take up of mediation. An adult may voluntarily acknowledge the need for support and actively seek it, indeed such an act can be considered a sign of maturity, but the ‘child’  is seen as incapable of recognising its need for support and so via this approach someone has to be compelled to have mediation  through  structures and policies that exclude choice.  Some may qualify that the compulsion is ‘to consider’ mediation, but the compulsion message given by the mediator is now established so it is difficult to see how that perception of being the compeller is then relinquished in future stages of the process by the participants and very easy to see how resistance to inadvertent suggestions and ideas projected on to the participants by the ‘mediator’ is going to be reduced. The latter is what we are seeing alongside the gradual movement towards ‘professionalisation’ of mediation, the ‘expert’ whose view overrides that of the individual, and further future developments are likely to infantilise clients even further.

‘The world is ruled by letting things take their course. It cannot be ruled by interfering’ –Lao Tzu – Tao Te Ching


A video about the development of practice and discipline, guided by principles and philosophies……

The real acquisition of the art is not in just mastering the external forms but also in mastering the principles and philosophy.

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