On Co-Mediation Part IV: 5 Ways Co-Mediating Benefits Your Own Mediation Business by Sharon Sutherland

Today’s guest blogger is Sharon Sutherlanda Mediate BC Civil Roster mediator and a committed and experienced mediation mentor.  Sharon has designed and managed practicum programs for Mediate BC, and has mentored mediators in the Court Mediation Practicum, the Child Protection Mediation Practicum, UBC Law’s clinical mediation program, CoRe Conflict Resolution Society mediations, Toronto Small Claims Court, New Brunswick and Northwest Territories’ child protection mediations, and by private agreement in civil and strata disputes.

This is the fifth post in our “On Co-Mediation” series. Read the other posts here:

Introduction | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VII

Sharon Sutherland
Sharon Sutherland

Mentoring and co-mediating have been fundamental aspects of my mediation work since my first experiences in Toronto some 19 years ago.  My own first mediations were mentored as part of two community mediation programs, and I was fortunate to become a mentor in a Toronto Small Claims pilot project soon after.  As such, I had the very unusual experience of completing nearly 100 mediations as either a mentee or mentor before mediating solo for the first time! My unusual career path no doubt influences my belief that mentored mediations are incredibly valuable learning experiences for both learning mediator and mentor.[1] Yet, while I would enthusiastically welcome the chance to discuss the many ways in which mentoring has improved my own skills, and added fun and challenge to my practice, others in this series have discussed this.  Instead, I have been asked to comment on the business case for co-mediating, and so I will limit my remarks on the skills and enjoyment benefits of mentoring to its direct application to the business case in #4 below.  That said, I encourage discussion of all benefits of co-mediating in the comments.

5 Ways Co-Mediating Benefits Your Own Mediation Business

Increasing your own referral pool

  1. Your co-mediator/mentee may well be a direct source of referrals.
    In Nick de Domenico’s second post of this series, he noted that his arrangement for mentorship included referrals for additional co-mediations back to him after his mentee was on the roster. Even where such an explicit arrangement is not in place, my experience is that referrals increase as a direct result of mentoring.  I think of this as the karmic benefits of mentoring, but the results are not just spiritual – they are financially measureable. Positive engagements with a mentee or co-mediator mean that one more person in the business has you on their referral list.

    • Perhaps they are trying to build their own practice (and so don’t want to send away business), but know they are not quite ready to conduct a complex mediation on their own. They therefore invite you to co-mediate because they already know you can work together;
    • Or, because they have their name out as mediators, their network generates queries about mediation in an area they have no interest in practicing, and you are their first choice for a referral;
    • Or they have a conflict of interest in a case that comes their way;
    • Or they continue to practice as a lawyer, psychologist, etc. as they build their mediation practice and have their own clients (or colleague’s clients) to refer to mediation.

    The ways in which the development of a good mentorship arrangement results in referrals from the mentee are countless. 

  2. A significant number of potential mentees will come from another professional background and already have a network for possible referrals.
    In these instances, a co-mediation model that pairs a subject area expert (typically the mentee) with a process expert (the mentor) results in an excellent co-mediation team that benefits both mediators (and the clients).  The mentee gains valuable experience in the process of mediation, but the mentor also has the opportunity to develop experience in a new subject area.  While mediators emphasize the importance of process skill over content knowledge, clients often see content knowledge as an important cost consideration: it seems as though it will inevitably take longer to mediate if the mediator must familiarize themselves with the subject matter.  This perception may or may not be accurate (and many arguments can be made against the subject expert model of mediation), but client perception certainly impacts hiring decisions.  
  1. Even young mediation trainees coming straight from school have networks that give rise to conflict.
    We each tend to develop networks within our own generation with the consequence that our referral networks age with us.  By working with many young professionals, I see opportunities to connect with new generations of possible clients, to capitalize on my interests in online mediation (with clients who find technological solutions natural rather than intimidating), to work in potential market areas I might not otherwise even be aware of (student residence disputes, conflicts at schools, community sports disputes, etc.), and to build connections with people who will one day be making the referrals when my peers have retired!

Inviting others to co-mediate by sharing your own mediations 

  1. I have made a point of actively seeking co-mediators for my own CPD when taking on pro bono or fee-reduced mediations.
    In these instances, there is little, if any, financial discussion to be had with a co-mediator; instead, the focus is on what value we might bring to each other in terms of practice reflection. In this regard, I have sought opportunities to co-mediate with:

    • colleagues I admire but never get to see in mediations;
    • colleagues I know from reputation have very different styles than I do (and that I might not plan to adopt, but could conceivably learn from);
    • and colleagues who seem to have styles very similar to my own.

    All of these colleagues might introduce me to some new approach I haven’t thought of or have felt awkward trying, but they are even more likely to cause me to think closely about my own style choices – many of which have become automatic responses to specific situations.  The benefit of such reflection is immediate, and improves my skills.  There can be no question but that there is a strong business case for taking such “free” opportunities for learning and improving. (And yes, there is always learning – even after thousands of mediations!)  

  2. In addition to inviting peers to join me in pro bono or fee-reduced mediations, I have also invited student mediators to co-mediate.
    The learning for me is still significant, if typically different than when I choose a specific peer to work with, but this is also a chance for me to contribute to the development of mediation in BC. While I occasionally hear a senior practitioner query why they would train “the competition”, most mediators understand that we all gain more work as we expand the pool of mediators because this increases the discourse on mediation: the more people hear about someone training to be a mediator, or starting a mediation practice, the greater the possibility that a member of the public thinks of mediation as a possibility to explore when conflict arises.  Our profession is still not as broadly known to the public as we would like, and “walking the talk” in ways that expand knowledge of collaborative practices is an important means of growing everyone’s referrals.[2]

One important note that I would make regarding both 4 and 5: I am absolutely confident that the quality of mediation service for these lower fee mediations does not suffer by virtue of any of these co-mediation options, but rather increases, even where the co-mediator is a student.  With adequate pre-mediation planning, co-mediations offer a wide variety of advantages to the parties (which is a much longer topic).  The only times I have concerns about quality of service to parties is where co-mediators have not adequately prepared between themselves, which frankly raises questions of the competence of the senior mediator to act as a mentor, rather than the skill of the less experienced mediator.

The Business of Mentoring

Having discussed a variety of ways in which co-mediation makes business sense for the senior mediator, it seems natural to point out that mentoring can itself be a form of mediation practice that one explicitly seeks.  I have, in the past, had a short paragraph on my website that indicates that I enjoy working with learning mediators and encouraging people to contact me for mentoring or co-mediation when it might help to bring in a more experienced mediator.  In preparing this post, I realize that one might very well wish to be even more proactive in inviting newer mediators to make contact with respect to co-mediation opportunities.  For mediators who enjoy the challenge of co-mediation and the rewards of teaching, it might be both realistic and rewarding to make mentoring a significant part of a private mediation practice.

[1] I have never co-mediated without learning something myself (especially perhaps enhancing those skills needed to support a learning mediator to succeed without highlighting experience differences – something that is directly transferable to facilitating workplace conversations, business disputes, and raising self-confident children!

[2] In this regard, I want to highlight the exciting opportunities to capitalize on collaborative marketing of the profession, as opposed to the individual, that Mediate BC’s efforts with Conflict Resolution Week offer.  If you haven’t mentored and are thinking of it, why not make a plan to offer a mentored mediation during Conflict Resolution Week 2015 October 17-24?!

This post also now appears on True North Dispute Management.

Sharon addresses the sometimes awkward-feeling issue of fee sharing for co-mediations in Part V of the “On Co-Mediation” series.

[Editor’s note: Many of the posts in this series refer to the personal experiences of the author. When considering applying to a Mediate BC Roster, please be sure to review the requirements at mediatebc.com.]

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