Every year hundreds, if not thousands, of seats are sold on mediation training courses in Ireland and the UK alone. Most of these courses end with motivated, excited and passionate new mediators going out into the world looking to do their bit to change how conflict is dealt with. What they have usually not been told, and often don’t realise, is how few of them will end up working regularly in mediation.

All of us who work in this field are passionate about what we do and why we do it. But that passion can quickly turn into frustration when we print out business cards and set up our website and the phone stays quiet. A few throw in the towel quickly, others persist for a while before giving up. The elephant in the mediation training room is that there is just not enough work out there for all the mediators that are being trained. Those of us involved in training all know that a mediation qualification is not enough to generate mediation work and some courses sometimes oversell the likely benefits of their training. The oversupply of mediators in relation to the amount of work available is not something trainers want to talk about, not just because it will turn away participants but also because it is hard to see the enthusiasm of new mediators dampened and their efforts frustrated. But is this different from any other professional or career pursuit? If you train as a solicitor, executive coach or a pilot can you walk straight into a job or will clients be looking to hire you straight away?

Sounds gloomy doesn’t it? Maybe, but it does not have to be. The other side of that coin is the many many mediators I know that have thriving mediation practices, are referring work on to colleagues because they are over stretched – yes really – and who are living the dream that we all had when starting out down this path. We have a number of choices therefore – we can shrug our shoulders and give up, being grateful for the work we do have, work on raising awareness of mediation and generally promoting the mediation option so as to generate more work, wait for our governments to do so (don’t get me started on that one) or, figure out how those mediators who are successful make a living from mediation.

What is it that distinguishes those mediators who get work and make money from those who struggle to do so?
Is it training, experience, connections?
Is it because they know they right people, because, dare I say it, they are lawyers?
Because they live in large urban centres or can afford to spend money on a fancy website?

No, I don’t think so. I think it is more complex than that, and, at the same time, simpler. I think those who are successful are those who are really good at marketing their service. That sounds logical but is more complex than we might think.

Many new mediators have chosen their path to make a difference, to help people, to change the way we think about conflict and to develop their skills and self awareness. And maybe, marketing our business and our services feels a little uncomfortable for that reason, because we are here to help, rather than to earn money. Marketing therefore, can be difficult, feel awkward, and is easily left to the bottom of the to-do list. For many, having those cards printed and the website set up ticks the marketing box. Surely the calls will come. But there is much more to marketing and promoting a mediation business than that.

What is it then, how does one market a mediation business successfully? I decided to do a little research on what it is that successful mediators do differently and what lessons we can learn from them. This has resulted in some interesting insights, and left me reassured that, while there may not be the abundance of freely available mediation work yet, there is a lot we can do to access the work that there is, and some lessons we can give our trainees on their way into the mediation world too. I will share these with you, but next month…in the mean time, how do you get your work and sell your services? Do you enjoy it or do you run a mile from marketing? It is worth thinking about…

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7 comments

  1. Thank you Sabine. This is very thoughtful and I look forward to next month. There is another angle. We, in Core, have just completed a really great Residential Summer School, entitled Using Mediation Skills as Leaders. We had a wonderfully diverse group of senior and not-so-senior participants. They all got a huge amount out of it. Very few will go on to become full-time (or even perhaps part-time) mediators. However, they will take the essence of what we do as mediators back into their organisations, firms, cases and communities and they will transform situations. That is worthwhile in itself. It may even be more beneficial in the longer term.

  2. Spot on about the marketing point. Freelance mediators, like freelance anything else, need to be pretty entrepreneurial (and good) to make a decent living. The only caveat I would want to add is that there can be other reasons for doing a mediation course. Some of my ex-students now work for not-for-profit mediation organisations where presumably the marketing is done by others. And others are doing a range of interesting jobs where it’s very helpful to have an in depth understanding of human conflict – HR, management, education, lawyering, and pretty much anything else!

  3. Dear Sabine,
    You are absolutely right. The same situation in Lithuania. We have new law on mediation. In near future, all families (with some exceptions) before starting divorce procedure at the court would have to meet with mediator. At this moment in Lithuania we have “mediation spring” – almost everyone who works with the family issues (lawyers, psychologists, social workers and etc.) seeking to become a mediator. Seats are sold on mediation training, too.

  4. Sabine – very interesting article on many levels.

    I think John and Charlie’s comments are very relevant to this point. I also think Nokukhanya’s point about the varying quality of mediators is relevant but but that’s an entirely separate topic that I won’t address in the comment (otherwise we could be here a while).

    Personally I don’t subscribe to what’s become the dominant narrative in mediation; too many mediators and not enough mediation work.

    A quick story to illustrate why, this is true by the way and happened to me just the other week. My local pizza parlour serves the best pizza, not just in London but outside of Napoli, I’m not kidding it’s that good. I was there 2 weeks ago picking up pizza for the whole family. The restaurant was busy so I had a 20 minute wait for my order. Seizing the opportunity for a quiet pint of Guinness I nipped directly next door to a very small ‘spit and sawdust’ Irish Bar to quench my thirst.

    This bar just happens to serve the cheapest pint of Guinness in London. The bar is a little rough around the edges shall we say, not somewhere you’d take your mum, but I went in sat myself down by the bar and ordered a pint.

    There was a chap sitting next to me who turned and struck up a conversation, he was an Irishman and turns out he ran a small building company. I asked him how was business?

    Not good he replied.

    It’s tough out there there are lots of tradesman and other building companies competing for the kind of jobs he was geared up for. He was doing small domestic work, roof repairs, kitchen extensions, loft extensions – you get the idea. So we continued to talk and I learnt a thing or two about damp proof courses and ground water levels. It was a very pleasant conversation and I estimated I had enough time for one more pint before leaving for my Pizza.

    I offered to buy my new friend a pint but he wouldn’t accept and insisted on buying me one. It was a very kind gesture for someone who on the face of it was struggling economically but I humbly accepted. We talked for another 20 minutes and at that point I had to exit stage-left to collect my pizza.

    As I got up off the stool I called the barman over and ordered a pint for my friend at which point my friend smiled and shook his head and said – that’s very kind of you but it’s not necessary, I own the place and your my guest.

    Every market is competitive, if you know of a market that isn’t then please email me privately. Furthermore, and to echo Charlie’s point, you need to be entrepreneurial and that sometimes means doing what it takes to put bread on your table.

    If it was as easy as completing a mediation training course then everyone would be doing it, right? A mediation certificate isn’t a certificate of entitlement to print money. Any business venture is hard work, risky and comes with a high degree of uncertainty (ask John Sturrock and many other mediators who have established sustainable business in this field).

    So I don’t buy the narrative, I think it’s demoralising and disempowering and it locates responsibility for success in the wrong place. I think it’s also disingenuous to those mediators who have gone through the grind of finding work and building a referral network and a reputation.

    C’mon folks let’s change the narrative, pull up the socks, roll up the sleeves and get out there!

    And if I may, a shameless plug – but if you’re a mediator reading this and wondering how the heck to get started then read this EBook now. 🙂

    Thanks Sabine, looking forward to part 2 – no pressure.

    Aled

  5. Dear Sabine
    Thanks for the elephant, which is pretty big. No denying it. I agree with colleagues’ comments on training mediation, leadership and conflict skills; not everyone who does mediation training wants to make a living out of mediation.
    There is another field in training I think we should be developing. Rather than just training mediators we could be training users of mediation. Letting people know and understand that mediation is an option and how it works. That there is a spectrum of dispute resolution options.
    I have introduced mediation modules to my university LLM and MBAs for this reason. I don’t expect these students to be mediators. They could be informed deciders for and users of mediation.
    Is there a training market in this? I think there is, even if it is not developed yet. Perhaps something that qualified mediators looking for work could add to their portfolio.
    Thanks again!
    Greg

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