Pre-Mediation Coaching: 4 Skills for Your Mediation Clients

Whether you are a lawyer, counselor, manager or other professional, you are likely to be involved in mediation regularly or occasionally. Legal professionals are required to have their clients participate in mediation before going to court in many kinds of disputes these days. Yet mediation isn’t perfect and some disputes unfortunately remain unresolved, despite the mediator’s and others’ best efforts. Studies show that 60-80% of disputes are resolved in mediation, depending on the type of dispute, so it still has a great track record and is the preferred approach in most situations – but perhaps we can do even better. In an effort to make mediation more effective – especially in high conflict cases – some mediators offer pre-mediation coaching services, or have other professionals provide this service. In this article, I suggest that pre-mediation coaching can be particularly effective if it includes teaching and practicing 4 specific skills, especially for clients dealing with a high-conflict dispute. This article is followed by a 2-page handout for clients, which you have my permission to use in individual coaching sessions.

When to Provide Coaching

Depending on the nature and history of the dispute, it can be very helpful to have a coaching session with each client several days before the mediation begins. This way, each participant can realistically think about the mediation process and can start thinking about making proposals and calming himself or herself down. Yet you don’t want to do this too long before the mediation, or it may add to the person’s anxiety.

It’s also possible to do this at the beginning of the first mediation session, either separately or with both parties together. You can send out the attached client handout (4 Skills for Mediation) with pre-mediation materials, then refer to it and reinforce the 4 skills at the beginning of the mediation.

If you are dealing with a very high-conflict dispute, however, it is highly recommended that the parties have training in using these 4 skills several days before the mediation. You might even consider having more than one pre-mediation coaching session for each client.

Who Should Provide the Coaching

The mediator? In ordinary disputes, the mediator can probably do this coaching – either before the mediation or at the beginning of the first session.

A lawyer? If you are a lawyer with a client who has been referred to mediation, you may be in the ideal position to coach your client on using these skills in mediation. You already have a relationship and you know the basic facts of your client’s case. These skills will also help you in your own work with your client, especially in managing your client’s stress and potentially resolving the entire case out of court.

A mental health professional? Depending on the nature of the dispute and the level of expected conflict – and how long it has been going – it may be wise to have a mental health professional or another experienced mediator provide the pre-mediation coaching. Such a professional may be able to use counseling skills in calming the client, helping the client see other points of view, and dealing with any related mental health issues.

By having someone other than the mediator provide the coaching, it reduces any effort by a possible “high conflict” person (one who chronically gets into conflicts, remains in conflicts for a long time and makes them worse) to hook the mediator into their upset emotions and extreme point of view. High conflict people (HCPs) usually put a lot of energy into persuading others – even neutral mediators – to take their side and to become responsible for resolving their problems. They usually forget that the mediator is supposed to stay neutral.

Getting Acquainted

If the mediator or another professional is meeting each client for the first time, it is fine to get acquainted with some chit-chat and basic information about the case. However, you don’t want to get too deep into the client’s upset emotions about the case, as the focus of your session is to teach skills that the client will use. (A coach who is not the mediator should make sure to avoid becoming involved in the case in any other way, like telling the mediator anything about the content. The client needs to be responsible for that, although you can help the client practice.)

Teaching the 4 Key Skills

It’s helpful to tie the skills to the issues that the client has mentioned. Explain each skill by saying how it can benefit the client. For example:

  1. Managed emotions: Learning this skill can help you stay calm when so-and-so is talking in the mediation. It will help you appear reasonable and focused on solutions.
  2. Flexible thinking: Can help resolve your dispute in a way that works for you.
  3. Moderate behavior: Realizing how to communicate so you don’t make the other person defensive can be really helpful, since most people don’t think about that when upset.
  4. Check yourself: This helps you remember to use the skills during the mediation process.

Practicing with the Client

If it seems appropriate, you can practice at least one example of one of these skills in a role-play exercise with the client. Suggest that the client take the role of the Other Party in the dispute for a minute or two, and you can play the Client. Ask the client (playing the Other Party) to say something the Other Party might say in the mediation that would be upsetting for the client. Then, you (playing the Client) respond using one of the skills.

For example:

Other Party says:     You’re not getting enough work done! You’re always slow!

Client (you) says:    (Remembering not to take it personally): Then I have a proposal: Why don’t you tell me what your priorities are, since you have several projects for me.

Then, switch roles and you be the Other Party and let the Client play himself or herself. Repeat the exercise. Clients often find this very helpful, because they didn’t have the words and just got upset in the past. If you have time, you can do several such exercises or you can let the client talk about other issues.

Ask the Client to Summarize

At the end of the Coaching session, ask the client to summarize what he or she has learned. This helps the client remember better and shows how important you believe these skills are for his or her success.

Print a client handout from our website HERE

Read more about our New Ways for Families Pre-Mediation Coaching model & materials

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Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist and family mediator. He has been a mediator for over 30 years, starting out as a volunteer community mediator, then becoming a lawyer-mediator focused on family disputes. He is the Senior Family Mediator at the National Conflict Resolution Center in San Diego, CA and he is a founding board member of the Academy of Professional Family Mediators. He is the author of several books, including: High Conflict People in Legal Disputes; It’s All YOUR Fault! (12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything); and BIFF (Quick Responses to High Conflict People), all published by HCI Press/Unhooked Books. He is also the President of High Conflict Institute, which provides speakers and trainers worldwide on managing high conflict people in a wide range of legal, workplace, healthcare, neighborhood and other disputes. www.HighConflictInstitute.com.