[a]sk prospective mediators questions like these to assess experience, depth of training and education, and adaptability:
- Do you have approaches or tools you usually use? Tell me about them. You’re looking for answers that convey a complexity of thinking and practice, not rote mimicry.
- Describe for me how your mediations typically unfold — what does it look like? Ask yourself if what they described makes sense for you and your situation. If it doesn’t, ask them…
- Do you vary that approach in circumstances where it may not work as well? Savvy mediators will not be thrown by this question.
- Tell me about the philosophy that guides your work. Look for a fit between what they describe and what feels right to you. If they can’t answer the question, that’s a red flag — it suggests they’ve never thought about it or have too little training to understand that all mediation approaches have underlying values and philosophies.
All of these questions go to the matter of what’s termed in the field, mediator style. Many mediators will say that their style varies depending on the conflict, the setting (e.g., workplace, family, etc.), the parties, etc., that they have a toolbox of skills that they apply to different situations.
Claims that mediators can be eclectic and flexible across styles, blending and switching styles at will, are popular among mediators for many reasons (Della Noce, 2008). But it is not clear what these mediators are supposedly switching and blending: skills, tactics, repertoires, goals, values, or styles. I suggest that the image of the eclectic and flexible mediator makes sense only at the level of decontextualized skill (thus, the popular notion that mediators are neutrals who come equipped with their vast box of tools for intervening in conflict). The image makes far less sense if mediators are understood to be acting intentionally and in a goal-directed way from a core set of their own values when they intervene in conflict—that is, from their own vision of what is good in human interaction and what is good in conflict (Bush & Folger, 1994, 2005; Della Noce, 2008). Core values about the nature of human beings, interaction, and conflict tend not to be quite so eclectic and flexible. For research purposes, the issue could be explored by first taking account of differences in goals and values among mediators, creating groups of mediators based on these differences, and then comparing behaviors within and between the groups for patterns of similarity and difference (compare Della Noce, 2002). Of course, it will be found that mediators share some tactics; they share a language and the same communication tools at the skill level. But, if the analysis is bumped up to more complex thinking about strategies, repertoires, goals, and values, we can expect to find some striking similarities within groups and differences between groups (Della Noce, 2002; compare van Dijk, 1998). Those findings will enrich our discussions of mediator style and its implications.