Friday, February 23, 2007

How to start (and not start) a mediation practice: a meme for mediators

Starting a Mediation PracticeMemes, for those of you who may be unfamiliar with the word, are ideas or units of cultural information that replicate and are transmitted virally from one human being to the next. In cyberspace, bloggers spread memes by tagging other bloggers and inviting them to amplify or discuss the idea, transmitting it in turn to other bloggers, and enabling the meme to propagate rapidly.

Tammy Lenski has created a meme for mediators, riffing on a post by Vickie Pynchon, on "How to Start a Mediation Practice"--a must-read for anyone interested in becoming a mediator. Tammy recounts her own proven formula for success in launching a practice as a mediator and has "tagged" Mediation Mensch Dina Beach Lynch and me, inviting us to continue the conversation on this theme.

Here goes:

The launch of my own practice began the way every mediator's career begins: with a very lucky win on a Massachusetts State Lottery scratch ticket.

Since memes after all are viral, and viruses are subject to mutation, I'm going to alter the sequence of the DNA of Tammy's meme. Since the launch of my own practice was totally unorthodox (although I did follow many of the action steps Vickie and Tammy took in starting their own careers as mediators), I'm not going to recount the details but instead will share a few thoughts on how to start (or not start) a mediation practice based on my experiences in the mediation career laboratory.

1. Invest in the best training or education possible when you begin.

Never, ever underestimate the importance of getting a great mediation training. It will give you a competitive advantage and a head start along your career path.

The first mediation training I took was taught by a respected professional mediator in a community setting. The problem however was that this was a "stand alone" training, since it was not taught under the aegis of an organization in the business of providing mediation services or mediation training. In fact, the organization which sponsored the training had no existing mediation program at all.

The training faculty also failed to provide any kind of support or advice to help us take the next steps when the training ended. At the end of the training we were all told not to quit our day jobs. That was it. No one told us where we could go to get mediation experience, either volunteer or paid. We were not provided with information about continuing education in the mediation field or about professional associations for mediators, all of which existed at the time, which we might have joined had we been told of them. We were left on our own. Unfortunately this was in the Internet's early days and finding the information that would have led me to a better and more appropriate training was very difficult.

My advice to you would be to select a training program taught by an organization or group of individuals who recognize that their responsibilities to trainees don't end when the training is over. Find out what kind of support, mentoring, advanced mediation training, and opportunities to mediate the training organization offers to trainees who have completed a mediation training. This is not, however, the only criterion to consider in selecting a good mediation training program. For more information, please read my posts on "What to look for in a basic mediation training" and "How to become a mediator".

Be aware as well that your training as a mediator does not end when you've completed a 40-hour basic mediation training. Continuing education is critical to your professional development. I myself have several hundred hours of mediation training under my belt and have also undergone training in other areas as well to expand the range of services I can provide clients. You may also want to invest in your career by obtaining an academic degree, as Tammy did.

2. Build relationships with other mediators.

I've already talked at length in an earlier post about the importance of joining and participating in the community of ADR practitioners, but what I said bears repeating:
"Joining" means to take part in the life of a community. Joining means to show up for professional development workshops, conferences, and roundtables. Joining means getting to know people who have something to teach you. Joining means passing that teaching on to someone else. Joining means to join professional associations, not just for the usual member benefits--the reduced fees at association events, listings on web sites or in print directories, or discounts on malpractice insurance--but the really important stuff: the networking, the schmoozing, the connecting. Joining is the exchange of knowledge, the debate of ideas, the joy of discovery. Joining is about contributing to the conversation, in big ways and small.
Building relationships with other mediators is critical to your development as a professional. Not only are other mediators sources of referrals for clients and work, not only can your ties with them yield fruitful collaborations, but they can serve as wise counselors or advisors when your practice throws an ethical curveball your way. They can guide us in our efforts to become more skillful and self-aware practitioners. And, most rewardingly, our ties with other mediators can lead to deep and lasting friendships.

3. View every interaction with others as an opportunity to advance the field.

The other day I took advantage of mild temperatures and thawing ice to take my dog for a walk. As we turned a corner to head home, we came upon a person tugging at a very stubborn dog on a leash who was determinedly trying to head in the opposite direction. They were clearly angry with the dog. I suddenly recognized the dog as a friend's, although the person with him was not my friend--it was the dog-walker whose services my friend relies on. I said hello to the dog walker and the dog, and the dog began wagging its tail and tried to run toward us to greet us. The dog walker berated the dog and pulled sharply on its leash, scowled at me, and then walked away quickly.

I was struck not only by how unfriendly the dog walker was to me--considering that I could have been a potential client--but also by how much their behavior toward the dog told me everything I needed to know about their skill as a provider of pet care services. This was someone I would never, ever hire based on what I had just observed.

This encounter made me realize the extent to which we are always in the public eye. Whether we like it or not, we are always on. Every interaction we have with others can shape the world's perception of who we are and the work that we do. Although mediators don't generally walk around mediating, the world is filled with opportunities for human interaction--the stuff of which conflict resolution is made. First impressions count for a lot, and we have only moments to make a good one. Remember that every mediator serves as an ambassador for the mediation field--we are all the face of the profession.

In addition, every time we meet someone new, it's a chance for us to educate someone about the work that we do. One of the questions we commonly ask each other on meeting for the first time is, "What do you do?" Have that elevator speech ready. While it may not result in work for you directly, the more we mediators can build public awareness of the value of mediation and create positive associations, the more the field as a whole will benefit.

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I now pass the meme baton along to Geoff Sharp and Colin Rule. How did you folks start your own mediation practices?