Sunday, January 21, 2007

Mediation certification and credentialing: getting accurate information on becoming a mediator

As a mediator and a trainer of mediators, a lot of announcements for mediation trainings cross my desk. Most recently one came my way that invited registration for a "certification training" for mediators. I've seen many like it over the years.

Most of them sadly have one thing in common: the "certification" that many of these trainings purport to provide is largely meaningless.

As public awareness of mediation’s benefits grows, so, too, does interest in mediation as a career. People naturally want to receive appropriate training and credentialing. Many of them believe that to enter the mediation field, they need to become certified as a mediator. As it turns out, that may or may not be right.

Confused? You’re in good company. And finding accurate information about mediator certification is a lot harder than it should be. I've therefore created this article in an effort to dispel some of the confusion.

1. How are mediators licensed?

At the time of this writing, mediation in the U.S. is an unlicensed profession. Unlike their counterparts in fields such as law, medicine, psychology, architecture, or social work, mediators in private practice are not licensed or regulated by states. In fact, anyone can hold themselves out as a mediator even if they have no training whatsoever.

There are reasons for the lack of licensing or state regulatory oversight. For one thing mediation as a field is relatively new and continues to define itself. Although forms of mediation and conflict resolution have existed for millennia, mediation as a professional service rose to prominence only in the latter half of the 20th century. Its widespread institutionalization in courts, schools, businesses, and governmental agencies, and its broad acceptance by the public are a fairly recent phenomenon.

In addition, credentialing remains a controversial subject among mediators. What makes credentialing a challenge is that mediators disagree among themselves as to what constitutes the practice of mediation. Different models of practice abound, and the differences among these models can be dramatic.

These models include facilitative mediation, an interest-based, problem-solving approach modeled upon the well known classic, Getting to Yes; evaluative mediation, in which the neutral provides an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of a case and makes predictions regarding each party’s likely success at trial; and transformative mediation, which values the principles of empowerment and recognition--empowerment of parties to make their own decisions and the recognition by each party of the other’s point of view.

2. So does that mean mediation isn't a true profession?

Absolutely not. Do not mistake the lack of professional licensing for a lack of professionalism. During the past several decades the mediation field has produced rigorously tested theories of practice, an impressive body of scholarship, and numerous laws and judicial decisions regarding mediators, mediation, and the protection of confidentiality of mediation communications.

Most importantly, practitioners, educators, scholars, researchers, and others have developed and refined widely accepted standards of best practices, crafted ethical rules for practitioners, and carefully developed guidelines for the training and education of mediators. Specializations have emerged within the field with corresponding practice standards for those specialty areas. And professional associations for mediators abound that promote best practices and actively work to advance the field.

3. If mediators aren't licensed, then how can I qualify to be a mediator?

That depends upon the state you plan to live and practice in. In Massachusetts, to receive the benefit of the protection of a state law that protects the confidentiality of mediation communications, a mediator must have completed at least 30 hours of training and either have four years of professional experience as a mediator, be accountable to a dispute resolution organization which has been in existence for at least three years, or be appointed to mediate by a judicial or governmental body.

For mediators who serve in court-connected mediation programs, state courts may have their own qualification requirements.

For a list of the requirements for each of the 50 states, see "State Mediator Rosters and Qualifications" prepared by the Institute of Government, College of Professional Studies at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

4. Okay, so what is mediator certification then?

That depends. Let's take a look at the different contexts in which mediator certification appears.

State and federal certification

Only a very few state courts or state bodies in the U.S. certify certain classes of mediators. These include The New Hampshire Marital Mediator Certification Board; 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; South Carolina Board of Arbitrator and Mediator Certification, working in conjunction with the South Carolina Supreme Court’s Commission on Dispute Resolution; the Judicial Council of Virginia; and North Carolina Court System’s Dispute Resolution Commission which certifies family financial mediators.

In addition, at the federal level, the U.S. Department of the Navy certifies mediators who have met the necessary requirements.

Certification by professional associations for mediators

Some professional associations for mediators have established certification for certain classes of its members who have met qualifications specified by the association, which may include training, experience, and educational requirements. In this case certification is private and is not connected with any state authority or provided under state oversight.

Certification by private training companies

Some private training companies offer mediator certification training which will enable participants to meet the training requirements established by a particular state court or body for certification as a mediator. Such trainings will most likely be clearly identified as such.

However, some private training companies offer what they describe as "certification training" for mediators, which simply means that participants will receive a certificate of attendance upon completion of the training and not that the training will satisfy the certification requirements of a particular state court or agency. In my opinion--one which is widely shared by many respected trainers and educators in the ADR field--this practice can be misleading, whatever the intention of the trainers. For the layperson unfamiliar with the field, it creates a likelihood of confusion. In this case "certification training" can easily raise the expectation that the training confers formal accreditation or a professionally recognized credential, when in fact it does nothing of the kind.

If you plan to register for a mediation training which advertises itself as “certification training”, be sure to find out specifically what certification means in this case and what it will qualify you for.

Online mediator certification training

Online certification training for mediators warrants a special caveat. I have said this before and it is worth repeating: online mediation training which purports to prepare students for face-to-face mediation is not worth your time and money. As I said in an earlier post,

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.

5. Conclusion

As you can see, mediation certification and credentialing is a complex topic. It pays for you to be thorough in doing your homework. For up-to-date information in your state on mediation training, certification, or mediator qualifications, please contact your local chapter of the Association for Conflict Resolution. To learn more about mediation training and careers, please explore the following posts:

"How to become a mediator: five frequently asked questions about training and careers in mediation."

"Getting it straight: understanding mediator certification."

"What to look for in a basic mediation training."
Best of luck to you as you pursue a career in mediation.