It was a phrase I’d imagined silently echoing in the minds of parties, co-mediators and solicitors, but this was the only time I had heard it vocalized.

It was uttered during one of my first coordinator roles in the civil courts of Scotland, where my role was to inform and promote the services of the mediation clinic to parties pursuing litigation under Simple Procedure. I was nervous to say the least. The aim of the role seemed unclear and, as an inexperienced mediator, I lacked authority and confidence.

The Sheriff’s strong critiques of a contractor’s failure to complete the building of a deck (over many years) had been heard, and it was suggested to the parties that they speak to the mediators present, in the hope of resolving the issue with no further legal action.

– Cue me.

I believed this case was ideal for mediation. I introduced myself to the two gentlemen involved in the claim, explaining the potential benefits of mediation. It soon became apparent, by the respondent’s resistance, that he was uninterested in my pitch.

I continued my presentation and expressed my enthusiasm for mediation, until I was met with that phrase:

“What would YOU know about it?”

Fair enough – what do I know about the construction of a deck? Very little, and I was quick to articulate this to the respondent, adding, “Though, I am assured YOU know quite a bit on the matter, which is far more relevant to this case.”

I attempted to recover by reiterating that my role, as a mediator, was to facilitate a meaningful conversation between the parties, and that the subject matter, content and interests were determined by the parties and not myself.

But, as you may have guessed, this case did not mediate. It is doubtful that the Sheriff who would hear the case would have an exhaustive knowledge of deck construction either and the matter would ultimately come down to contract law, not construction. However, the participants had a lack of trust in both the mediation process, and in my experience and ability as a young mediator.

Perhaps, I have been mediating for longer than I realized. I was sought out on the playground to advise and resolve disputes such as, “Whose turn was it, really?” I dabbled in mediation before I knew the term (though my argumentative and opinionated personality did not reflect a high standard of impartiality).

I went on to explore the concept of issues and crisis management as a module in public relations in my undergraduate studies, before moving to my postgraduate studies, where I discovered mediation and alternative dispute resolution.

The field offered me the opportunity to combine my interests in working with people, taking a thoughtful approach, problem solving and creativity. Once commencing my studies abroad in Scotland, I continued to develop these skills while learning to implement strategy and theory into the practice. After clocking the necessary hours as a student mediator and meeting other requirements, I began to take on cases as a lead, co-mediating with current or past students in the Master’s program.

During these cases, it was assumed (more than once) that I was the trainee there to observe and learn from my more experienced counterpart. It didn’t matter that I was conducting, guiding and facilitating a majority of the process. People expected our ages to correspond with our experience level. My age spoke for – and continues to – speak for me as a learner, not as a mediator.

So, as a young mediator, what DO I know?

• I know how to be reflective on my thoughts, actions, feelings and how to convey these to others in an effective, impartial, genuine manner.

• I know that dealing with sensitive, complicated human emotions and interactions requires constant learning, adaptation and creativity, all of which I have a strong passion to continue pursuing.

• I believe that social intelligence learned through curiosity, and a strong desire to understand human behaviour, has assisted me in learning about people’s motivations and expectations. I have the compassion to commit time and sincerity to the cause and outcome of mediation.

• After time spent in the hallways and courtrooms of Simple Procedure, I have inadvertently learned more about the construction of decks (as well as showers, fences, window treatments, and doors for that matter!). I will learn about many content areas that cause dispute but mediation is about being heard, acknowledging needs and wants and arriving at a solution that maintains dignity.

• More importantly – I have developed an awareness of the need for sustainable conflict management skills. I work with and strive to use the mediation skills of open questioning, impartiality and listening both actively and passively. Parties are experts in their lives and what solutions they can accept, conflict is normal with problem solving as the key to conflict resolution.

• Lastly, I know I can’t possibly know everything about conflict and people management. Parties in mediation come from their own contextual backgrounds and they are the experts when it comes to their conflict and potential resolutions that would, or would not, suit them. Your curiosity and interest as a mediator show the parties that you are present, impartial and there not to enforce, but to guide them through the issues.

I urge young mediators (myself included) to continue to pursue opportunities for mediation experience and remind themselves of what we can bring to the table. I believe that young mediators have the skills and potential to contribute to the field and hope that employers and organizations can see this worth with offers of opportunities to provide the most coveted skill of all, experience.


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11 comments

    1. Thank you for your comment and assurance!
      I suppose the strength in mediation we need to focus on is the process and trust the content and parties to sort the rest out.

  1. Thanks Haley for taking the time to set this out so clearly. It’s tough being young in a business where age and experience are often taken as proxies for wisdom. But younger mediators have advantages too: they’re more, not less, likely to notice new ways of looking at things; or to hold their own opinions lightly and allow others to speak; or to have the energy and drive to persist even when things look impossible. Scotland’s a tough neighbourhood for mediation but things are changing and it’s great to have someone like yourself working here.

    1. Thank you for the support Charlie.
      I have certainly learned more about my own strengths and areas of improvement as a young mediator.
      I look forward to learning from more experienced practitioners and contribute to innovative and creative solutions.

  2. Haley, Thank you for sharing your experiences. It is tough. Our society associates and values age as wisdom and experience which is not always the case. I’m so glad to hear you are not letting it distract you from your goals. It took me a lot longer to feel that I belonged in the mediation world because I was young (I think i still am young!) As you touched on; I don’t think we “arrive” and become a mediator i think it is a life long journey. Keep doing what you believe in and things will shift.

    1. I had a subsequent thought –
      I have also met lots of people that don’t see my age as inexperience. I’ve worked with many mediators too who really value my contribution and experience and as Charlie said my energy and looking at things with a fresh eye. So find these people who will help you grow.

      1. Thank you for taking the time to comment and lend your support Abbey!
        I agree, and was fortunate enough to work with really fantastic mediators from various backgrounds and experience levels. The learning is a two way street (hopefully) and everyone brings their own unique style and professional experience into a mediation room.

  3. „People expected our ages to correspond with our experience level. My age spoke for – and continues to – speak for me as a learner, not as a mediator.“ Unfortunately this is quit common but not unique to our profession. When you start working, you also face questions about your ability and expertise. The direct link between age and experience is very prominent, however I know that someone can be less experienced (having mediated less sessions) but be an excellent mediator, responding to the parties/process needs. The overall challenge is not the lack of experience but how young mediators are perceived and how to overcome this!

  4. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment Angela!
    I agree, that this is a universal challenge in entering workforces. All professions have a learning curve and assume responsibility of training new employees with the hopes of gaining a return on this investment.
    I feel that given the opportunity to get in the room is how mediators can demonstrate their communication, rapport building and integrity.

  5. Hello Haley,
    I wish to join the prior comrades in the mediation struggle to say thank you for the great post. I share your experience in the field, as a starter above all in an environment where revenge and inflicting pain on the other party is celebrated as a punishment and proof of power.

    But together we can achieve.

  6. Haley even old mediators like me run into questions about our expertise . The point is that while we may not know much about deck construction we do know about mediation, about how the process works, and we also know about the cost in money, time and destroyed relationships trials bring. We know that mediation can and often does produce two winners: trial , never. You know this – the challenge is in communicating it to people who want their mediator to be the village elder.

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