Top 5 tips for commercial mediators

Martin Burns

Head of ADR Research and Development (RICS)

In my experience, lawyers and other professionals who desire to be commercial mediators are driven by three things. They want to add a new product to their service offering, they yearn for the challenge of doing something new and intellectually challenging, and they want to get paid for doing mediations.


I was talking to a chartered surveyor who had just achieved accredited status as a mediator with RICS. He got in touch with me to chat about how he might develop his experience, and maybe earn a few pounds. Here’s what I told him.

Accreditation by a reputable training body is only the first step in the process. If you want to be recognised and used as a mediator, you must not only have the desire, but you must also have a genuine commitment to get where you want to be, and put the hours in.

Here are my top five tips:

1. Get ahead of the competition

Do more training on mediation techniques and communications skills. Getting accredited in the first place is not cheap. A commitment to invest further time and money is risky, but it is necessary if you really want to be a practising mediator.

Accreditation by bodies like RICS is a bit like passing your driving test. It signals that you have the essential skills required to be a mediator. You understand the role and you are unlikely to cause damage whereas someone who is untrained might.  But you probably have no actual experience, and you have not been tested by dealing with real life disputes and real people. Any mediator who has put the hours in and gained experience, and the reputation that follows, will be one step ahead of you.

One of the things you can do is to learn about different techniques, such as the “evaluative” approach to mediation. This will give you the edge over a mediator who uses just the one approach to mediation, i.e. the standard facilitative method. Getting trained in evaluative mediation techniques will allow you to adapt to the varying needs of different parties.

2. Get your hands dirty with practical experience

If you seriously want to be a mediator, you must start the process of expanding your theoretical knowledge, and limited practical experience obtained in training simulations. Get your hands dirty doing pro bono and community mediations. Use networking to grab hold of some experienced mediators who can act as your mentors. Persuade them to give you the opportunity to act as observer or co-mediator on their disputes.

I know some very experienced and reputable mediators and mediation trainers. One thing they all have in common is this: whenever I turn up at a mediation event, they are always there. So I often advise newly qualified mediators who are looking to practice their skills to network.

3. Join groups and participate in clubs and forums

Get your name out there. Hang out with practising mediators and learn from their experiences. Swap business cards and then follow up. You could take experienced mediators out to lunch and use the opportunity to find out how they got to where they are.

If you are based in the UK, consider joining the Civil Mediation Council, and getting involved in its work to promote mediation. You might also join organisations such as the Family Mediators Association, Restorative Justice Consortium, the Standing Conference of Mediation Advocates, the UK Register of Mediators and some of the numerous online communities that have sprung up on LinkedIn and elsewhere.

If you are not based in the UK, do some research on bodies in your region that offer similar opportunities to make contacts and learn. The message is: “network, network and network”.

4. Focus on strengths

Some training and accreditation organisations will tell candidates that once they have been trained in mediation they can mediate any type of dispute. In my experience parties usually want mediators who really understand their disputes, and are qualified in the subject matter.

Parties generally see the role of the mediator as more than simply managing an exchange of information. Although mediators with technical knowledge and experience cannot give advice to the parties, they can rely upon their familiarity with the subject matter to ask questions which help the parties to properly consider the benefits and drawbacks of settlement options. If a party is being unrealistic an expert mediator can ask questions that need to be asked in order to get the party to reality check its position.

Expertise in the substantive area in dispute also allows a mediator to quickly focus on the issues in dispute. A mediator who is familiar with technical aspects of a dispute can swiftly grasp the important facts and reduce the number of issues to those that really matter.

There is of course a question of degree. A mediator will never have the same appreciation of the facts around a dispute that the parties will have. So if technical knowledge helps mediators to mediate, then a question arises as to what level of expertise a mediator needs to have.

5. Personal expertise is key

My advice to aspiring mediators is to generally focus on their personal areas of expertise. I tell them not to overtly promote themselves as mediators of disputes that fall outside their normal spheres of professional activity. However, some people may have had experience in particular matters that enables them to understand technical issues and even emotive positions.

I know one mediator who is a residential agent. He has been married four times. He routinely acts in divorce cases, and is a particularly good mediator where the issues are around what to do with the former matrimonial home.

In summary, my top tips for commercial mediators are to network, put the hours in to improve your knowledge and experience, and focus on your professional and personal strengths.

Comments (1)

  1. Martin Many thanks for such a helpful article. There is no substitute for experience and so observer-ships are crucial to successfully developing one's skills and gaining mileage in mediation and from both a CV and cpd perspective. Given that solicitors tend be the main "gatekeepers" to the supply of mediations, updating any solicitors with whom you have worked as a surveyor of your mediation accreditation can often be productive too.

    William Jackson William Jackson, 3 July at 12:03PM

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