What Makes a Good Mediator?

It takes more than just mediation courses

By on / Mediation

What makes a good mediator? And how is it that mediators—who themselves lack any power to impose a solution—nevertheless often lead bitter disputants to agreement?

Of course, serious mediation training and substantive expertise are critical, as is keen analytic skill. But according to a survey by Northwestern University law professor Stephen Goldberg, veteran mediators believe that establishing rapport is more important to effective mediation than employing specific mediation techniques and tactics.

To gain parties’ trust and confidence, rapport must be genuine: “You can’t fake it,” one respondent said. Before people are willing to settle, they must feel that their interests are truly understood. Only then can a mediator reframe problems and float creative solutions.

Goldberg’s respondents could report only their own perceptions about why they succeed, of course. A detached observer or the parties themselves might have very different explanations. Indeed, one of the tenets of mediation practice is to work subtly so that parties leave feeling as if they have reached accord largely on their own, a strategy that is meant to deepen their commitment to honor the agreement.


Download this FREE special report, Mediation Secrets for Better Business Negotiations: Top Techniques from Mediation Training Experts, to discover mediation techniques for selecting the right mediator, understand the mediation process and learn how to engage the mediator to ensure a good outcome from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

In an earlier study by mediator Peter Adler, his colleagues explained their success by discussing “the breakdowns, breakthroughs, and the windows of opportunities lost or found.” By contrast, participants in the same cases remembered the mediators only as “opening the room, making coffee, and getting everyone introduced.”

This research offers two lessons for negotiators—including those who must resolve disputes and make deals without the help of a third party. One is the importance of relationship building, especially in contentious situations. Some measure of trust is required before people will open up and reveal their true interests. The other is that a hallmark of an artful process is that others do not feel maneuvered or manipulated.

Adapted from “Rapport Comes First,” first published in the Negotiation Briefings newsletter.


Download this FREE special report, Mediation Secrets for Better Business Negotiations: Top Techniques from Mediation Training Experts, to discover mediation techniques for selecting the right mediator, understand the mediation process and learn how to engage the mediator to ensure a good outcome from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

Originally published in 2010. 

3 Responses to “What Makes a Good Mediator?”

  1. Aled Davies /

    I'm curious to understand what you mean when you say 'serious mediation training'. Mediation training in the UK tends to follow a standard format of 5-days of process and skill practice, I think it's a good place to start but I don't think it's satisfactory in terms of helping to develop skilled practitioners. I'd like to see a lot more rigour around mediation training I'd even go as far as to suggest an academic qualification as a starting point so that practitioners understand the theory that informs their practice. Regarding having substantive expertise I used to believe that this was more of a hinderance than a help but I'm coming around to the idea that it can be more of an asset as long as the mediator and the parties are aware of this expertise and that it doesn't interfere with party self determination. We've a long way to go to develop the field and it's always helpful to have a forum to debate these issues. Thanks Reply

  2. Garry Clarke /

    Rapport and trust is essential in any resolving any dispute and in mediation especially it is a key factor as both sides to the dispute must trust the mediator. Also to the previous comment, in Ireland the mediation training process is the same in Ireland and perhaps more intensive and rigorous training would see the value of mediation increase in the future. Reply

  3. Annie Frances /

    I had no idea that mediators were such a valuable career choice. It must take a good amount of acting skill and real understanding to not "fake it." I could never be a mediator, but the skills required interests me. Maybe I could take a couple lessons! Reply

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