10 Tips On How to Hire a Mediator

As we get older we anticipate more calm and less conflict. It is disappointing when we realize that we are still human and that somehow life has not magically become more Zen. In our fifties, sixties and beyond, we still have difficulties with siblings. We lose jobs, look for work, and have other employment changes. We get divorced and strike up new relationships. We have grandchildren AND aging parents. Life has not slowed down at all. Conflicts arise everyday at home, at work, with children, parents – it feels like the list of potential difficulties grows, not shrinks.

The point is: we never outgrow conflict.  It is entirely appropriate to hire a mediator, somebody who is neutral and who will help you through the conflict so that you can keep going to experience the calm you are looking for. The problem is, hiring a mediator is confusing. What is a mediator supposed to be good at? How DO you hire a mediator?

Here are TEN TIPS to help you find the right mediator for you. First, make a list of three to five mediators by asking your friends and colleagues for referrals and search online for mediators in your area. It should be relatively easy to come up with a short list to interview.   Here are some tips to help you succeed in finding someone really good:

#1 Lawyers and judges rarely make great mediators. It is common for lawyers and retired judges to do mediation. Lawyers might be capable lawyers and judges might be fair judges, but it is rare that either one is able to completely take off his/her advocate/judging hat to do what is required to be a great mediator: be neutral, nonjudgmental, and comfortable with conflict. This leads us directly to number two:

#2 Mediators should be extremely comfortable around conflict. Believe it or not, many mediators are actually conflict avoidant. These mediators believe the best way for them to help is to keep order in the room. They set ground rules (like no interrupting) then police these rules (have you ever had a normal conversation and not been interrupted?) They make agendas and then keep people from veering off the agendas. They tell people to calm down and to act respectfully. Do they not know that when people are upset they ACT upset? Truly great mediators welcome conflict into the room. They know that you cannot avoid conflict and have a high-quality process for the participants. It is important that the mediator not stir up the conflict, that is, we should not be digging it up and forcing it to come out, but it is indeed our job to tend to any conflict that is present.   Agendas are useful, but not if it keeps parties from discussing things that are very important to them.

#3 If you are in a situation such as divorce which is fairly amicable, you likely DO NOT need a mediator. Many lawyers tell prospective clients who are divorcing but have little conflict that they don’t need a lawyer and they should go find a mediator.   Most mediators will indeed take these cases and it is a waste of people’s money. Here’s what to do if you are divorcing and in fairly low conflict: go online and either start filling out the forms online (some states have their own online government filing website or there are online businesses that do this for every state) or search online for your state’s divorce forms, print them out and start filling them out. If you get stuck and start fighting, THEN call a mediator.

#4 You should feel some amount of good chemistry with the mediator. Call it what you want – trust, openness, neutrality, comfort – you should feel some of this stuff when you are interviewing a mediator. If you feel judged, misunderstood, cut-off, bossed around or closed down: find a different mediator. Bottom line, if the mediator sort of bugs you, don’t hire him or her. There are lots of us and you should take the time to find someone who makes you feel steady, heard, and empowered.

#5 Good mediators must be good communicators. Mediators should not be awkward  nor should they be dominating. Good mediators often help by modeling good communication skills for their clients.   Also, a mediator should not be talking for you nor relying on caucuses (private meetings with each of you during a session) as a regular way of operating a mediation. Mediators, by the way, should welcome anyone into the mediation room whom the parties want to (and agree to) include, such as attorneys and other experts and support people.

#6 Ask how much they charge. Some people are afraid to ask about the money part. You would ask a plumber or housekeeper before you would hire them, why not ask a mediator? If the amount is a hardship for you, you should feel free to ask if the mediator works on a sliding scale. Oh, and their high price and years of experience are not always indicative of their efficacy. THIS is why you must interview them.

#7  Mediators should charge you by the hour and not require a retainer. Period. Mediator services should be unbundled. Retainers do not benefit the client. After one meeting with the mediator you may decide that this mediator is not for you and go back to your list. Or you may feel that you can continue on without a mediator and discuss things yourselves, which is always preferable. If you then run into an obstacle, call again for help. Also, you are not required to pay them to write up a memorandum of understanding. These documents are normally not necessary or useful, and they generally are not legally binding.  Some mediators will give you notes after the meeting for a small charge. You may also take your own notes and not ask the mediator to do this for you, if they are going to charge you for it. If your mediator wants to do some of these extra services and charges for them, make sure to ask why they will be useful to YOU.

#8 A mediator should not be spending much time separately with each party. In order to maintain neutrality, and even the appearance of neutrality, a mediator should not let you go on and on about your story over the phone. It is really hard to NOT do this as the potential client, but a mediator should tell you early on that it is his/her job to be neutral and that means not getting too much into each side’s details. Mediators should offer to speak to each party (if they have spoken to one party) and may offer a free initial session for parties to come in so they can get a feel for the mediator.

#9 A mediator should be available in a timely manner. Once you make the choice to go with a particular mediator, often you want to move ahead right away. Go for it! Do not let someone convince you that you should wait a bunch of time. A mediator should work some evenings and weekends to accommodate YOU. Once you are a client you definitely should not have to wait a long time before you are fit back into the mediator’s schedule. It is not ethical for you to have an initial appointment with a mediator and then for them to not promptly schedule your next appointment (should you need one).

#10 Mediators are as different as attorneys are different. This will prove out to you when you call a few and interview them. You will notice different affects (casual vs. formal, comfortable vs. strict, chatty vs. spare, etc.), different philosophies (problem-solving vs. process oriented,), etc. and you will notice as you ask them questions how willing they are to engage with you. If they are frustrated by your asking questions, this is meaningful. You will note many differences, including mediators who disagree with what I have written here.

Copyright 2015. Mediation Unlimited LLC. All rights reserved.




8 thoughts on “10 Tips On How to Hire a Mediator

  1. Ridley Fitzgerald

    It’s good to know how to hire a mediator. My sister is going through a divorce soon, and I know she wants to mediate. She’s already fighting a ton with her husband, so hiring one is probably necessary.

  2. Chuck Wright

    I’ve got a question about recommendation (or tip) #3: If you are in a situation such as divorce which is fairly amicable, you likely DO NOT need a mediator.

    My spouse and I are separated and planning on divorce. I’d say that the process, so far, is fairly amicable. We’re ending the marriage before our differences have evolved into hostility and vindictiveness. We’re also committed to parenting as cooperatively and effectively as possible, given the circumstances.

    So, reading this tip, I went to the MN Judicial Branch website where there are forms and guidelines for filing for divorce. What I find there is several admonitions to the effect that divorce has significant legal and tax ramifications and that we ought to consult a lawyer – EVEN IF we are in agreement about the terms and conditions of divorce.

    I’m sure you can see how the combination of Tip #3 and these judicial admonitions would create some uncertainty. Care to speak to this uncertainty?

    I understand that this inquiry may amount to a request for free advice. Feel free to tell me so.

  3. Janet Rowles Post author

    Thanks for the great question! The court website is suggesting that you consult with an attorney to make sure that you understand your legal rights. A mediator, even one who is an attorney, is not supposed to give legal advice. I am suggesting to people not that they should give up their legal rights, but that they may not even need a mediator if they are still able to communicate about their needs and wishes. Some people assume they should spend money on a mediator because they don’t know a mediator does not fill out paperwork on a client’s behalf. We can give you a memorandum of understanding (a legal-ish format that outlines your agreements)but you don’t really need it for anything, since someone (not the mediator) still will need to fill out the paperwork for the court. I am letting people know that they can do fill out paperwork online, on paper, or hire someone else to do it for them, therefore hiring a mediator can sometimes be superfluous since we can’t do any of that. Our expertise should be in the conflict; paying us to write down your agreements when you can already talk about it on your own (no or little conflict) seems like a waste of your money, in my opinion. Does that satisfy your question, Chuck? Let me know if you want more information.

  4. Max Sayer

    Recently I have been thinking about getting a mediator but I wanted to look up some information. I really appreciated how this article talked about in order to maintain neutrality, and even the appearance of neutrality, a mediator should not let you go on and on about your story over the phone. This is something that I will have to keep in mind when I search for the right mediator.

  5. Janet Rowles Post author

    I’m glad you found it useful! Thank you for taking the time to let me know. Good luck in your search. Janet

  6. Penelope Smith

    This is some really good information about mediators. It is good to know that you should ask how much they charge and what their fees are before hiring them. That is good for me to know because I would forget to ask about that.

  7. Janet Rowles Post author

    It is indeed surprising sometimes that people feel uncomfortable asking (or just forget).

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