GETTING IT STRAIGHT: Understanding mediator certification
Anyone planning a career in mediation here in the U.S. should be aware that one of the ongoing debates in the mediation field concerns credentialing and certification of mediators. It is an issue of great importance to the profession, generating significant discussion and debate for the past two decades.
In addition to stirring up controversy, certification has generated plenty of confusion, too, not only for mediators themselves but for the public as well. The reasons for this confusion are numerous:
- No state yet has enacted laws regulating the private practice of mediation or establishing state-wide requirements for mediators as they do for other professions.
- While states themselves have not gotten into the business of regulating mediation, a number of state courts have established rules governing mediators in court-connected ADR programs. A handful of these actually certify mediators, although even there the qualifications for certification vary from one state to another.
- Some private organizations which provide mediation training offer what they designate as "certification" for those who successfully complete their programs of study.
- In addition, some private professional associations for mediators also certify certain classes of members.
- Mediators themselves add to the confusion because they often mistake the completion of mediation training and receipt of a certificate of attendance for certification itself.
Certification by state courts or boards.
In the U.S., the vast majority of state courts do not certify mediators (including Massachusetts, where I practice). A handful of U.S. state courts or commissions, however, have adopted certification requirements for mediators providing court-connected services.
- The New Hampshire Marital Mediator Certification Board, created pursuant to state law
- The Supreme Court of Florida, which certifies four different categories of mediators--county court, family, circuit court, and dependency—each of which must meet specific minimum qualifications
- The South Carolina Board of Arbitrator and Mediator Certification, working in conjunction with the South Carolina Supreme Court’s Commission on Dispute Resolution under the auspices of the South Carolina Judicial Department
- The Judicial Council of Virginia, which has promulgated guidelines for certification and training for court-referred mediators
- The North Carolina Court System’s Dispute Resolution Commission which certifies family financial mediators.
For an overview of mediator qualifications for all of the 50 U.S. states, see the March 2002 draft report entitled "State Mediator Rosters and Qualifications" prepared by the Institute of Government, College of Professional Studies at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Keep in mind that even in states which require certification for court-connected ADR, certification is not required for mediators in private practice.
Some private organizations offer what they describe as "mediator certification training". This could mean several things. It may mean that that program meets the training requirements of a particular state court for certification as a mediator. It may also simply mean that the organization issues its own private certification but not in connection with or under the auspices of any state body.
In addition, be aware that training may not be the only requirement necessary for certification, and be sure to contact the state court or board providing certification for further information and details.
What is critical is that you find out what exactly "certification training" means and what it qualifies you for before you register for any training program.
Certification by professional associations
Professional associations for mediators typically provide important benefits for members--continuing education, networking opportunities at member meetings, listing in online and printed member directories--just to name a few. Some, like the Massachusetts Council on Family Mediation, offer certification for members who meet certain requirements.
In this case certification is available only to members of the association, and certification should not be mistaken for state or governmental oversight.
For an excellent overview of the history of mediator certification here in the U.S., The New York State Dispute Resolution Association, Inc. (NYSDRA), a private, non-profit organization for ADR professionals, provides one here at its web site.
Final thoughts on mediation careers and training
For advice and ideas on mediation training and mediation careers, you can start with this blog’s most frequently visited post: "What to look for in a basic mediation training", together with "Becoming a mediator: what you should know before you change careers."
In addition, the Ohio Commission on Dispute Resolution & Conflict Management provides a superb consumer guide to mediation training which covers not only the issue of mediator certification in the context of training, but also has some useful tips on selecting a mediation trainer.
For general information on starting a career in mediation, with some worthwhile advice on training and education in mediation theory and practice, visit this page at the web site of Susan Podziba & Associates, which includes a link to the Program on Negotiation’s “Building a Career in Conflict Resolution” workshop series webcasts.
One last caveat
If you're thinking about getting training in mediation, please be aware that great mediation training is highly experiential and interactive, reinforcing the notions of collaboration and teamwork. Acquisition of learning is achieved through interpersonal interaction--through class discussions, multi-party exercises, and role-playing. It’s a very much hands-on experience to get students in touch with the deeply interpersonal dynamics of mediation itself.
I would therefore caution you about mediation trainings offered as correspondence or distance learning courses which students complete online and at their own pace with no interaction with other students.
A mediation correspondence course which affords no opportunity for face-to-face and group interaction with coaches and fellow students is simply no substitute for the real thing.
(Please note that I am not referring here to training in online dispute resolution (ODR), an approach to resolving conflict using the Internet as a medium for communication and problem-solving. ODR by definition is conducted online, so training in ODR will of course utilize computer and Internet technology.)
Therefore, be cautious of a mediation training program conducted entirely online which purports to prepare you for face-to-face interactions with parties in conflict.
In any event, be sure to ask questions--and, even more importantly--make sure you get answers.
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