(Originally published in the blog of conflictconversations.org)

Mediation, including family mediation, is not regulated in Ontario. There are, however, a number of voluntary associations that can attest to the credentials or the skills of their members. Nonetheless, it’s crucial then that couples in search of a family mediator in Ontario keep the following factors in mind.

Mediator training

A 40-hour basic mediation course is common but, in my view, insufficient to practise as a mediator. Voluntary organizations of mediators now require a good deal more than this basic training.

Bear in mind that a skills assessment by peers offers a higher standard of professionalism than simply checking off a list of training and experience requirements.

There are practising family mediators with neither accreditations nor certifications. Some deliver high-quality services; some do not. Caveat emptor.

Practical experience

While sheer numbers will not by themselves provide assurance of the quality of mediation services provided, it is nonetheless important to inquire as to years of practice as a family mediator, number of cases mediated, what types of issues, degree of client satisfaction, and number of cases that settled. It is also important to learn whether there have been any complaints lodged against a mediator, and if so, what the disposition of those complaints was.

Subject matter expert or generalist

This is a hotly and continually debated issue in the wider mediation community. In Ottawa, there is a prevalent view that the legal issues of separation and divorce should be mediated by lawyer-mediators while parenting and communication issues should be mediated by mental health professionals.

At first glance, this seems to be a very sensible approach. There are, however, other considerations. Most mediators who practise other disciplines agree in principle that when mediating, they wear only their mediator hats. In reality, maintaining the boundary between mediation and another discipline may be exceedingly difficult. This is all the more so in professions that focus on advancing or protecting the physical, legal, or psychological interests of their clients. Because of these practical challenges, the paramount principle of mediation, self-determination, that the clients make the substantive, if not also the process, decisions may be at risk.

So the issue of whether the mediator should be a subject matter expert or a generalist needs to be reframed. If the mediator is an expert in a substantive field, what is the nature of her interventions in mediation? Will her interventions be informed by her substantive expertise, or will they be based on other factors? This is why it is essential to consider the framework she uses as a mediator.

Mediator’s style or framework

It’s important to learn what approach to the process any given mediator uses, and to decide whether you are comfortable with it. Remember, too, that there is research showing that mediators do not always act in mediation the way they’ve said they would. Answers such as “I do what the clients need at any given moment” or “Whatever is helpful” are circular and don’t really get to the heart of the matter: what is the mediator’s objective; why is that her objective; and how consistently will she work to that end.

Evaluative mediators will gather the facts and apply their knowledge of the law (or psychology or social work or family systems) to express an expert opinion as to outcomes in litigation (or in other areas). They are generally more inclined to propose settlements or make recommendations.

Facilitative mediators will gather all information they believe to be relevant and assist the parties to structure their negotiation to reach a mutually acceptable resolution. They tend to be reluctant to make recommendations or give advice.

Transformative mediators will seek to support both parties in their conversation moment-by-moment in order to improve (transform) the quality of how they interact in conflict. The approach is based on the view that conflict, left untended, distorts and obstructs productive interaction; conflict interaction actually worsens the original differences. The objective then is to assist parties to move to more constructive interaction. Where the participants are able to do this, they generally have the agency and empathy to find their own solutions, if they wish to.

All of these approaches are viable and legitimate. It is, however, important as a consumer to know how any given mediator will assist you, and whether her interventions are a good fit with both of you. Mediation from start to finish is about your decision making, your choices, including who you want to mediate.

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