Many years ago a colleague described learning to mediate as being like trying to watch two different TV screens with different shows on them, and learning to meld them into one. On one screen was the story and facts of the case itself and on the other was the mediation process and all its related skills and strategies. The trick was to learn how to braid the two aspects into one flowing mediation. For a long time I liked and used that metaphor when talking with new mediators.
This weekend, I had an experience that replaced, or at least augmented, the TV metaphor. My teenage son tried to teach me to play one of his online video games. Just as technology has evolved from TVs to so many other forms of electronic communication, that video game controller gave me a newly evolved metaphor. Sure, it had the split screen – my view and the other player’s view (another great mediation metaphor!) – but it was my attempt to master that controller that had me thinking about the new mediator. One finger makes things go forward or backward, like moving the process along, but pushing on that trigger can also have an effect on your progress through the game, like changing the process can change how the mediation moves forward.
I am not going to belabor the metaphor through all the many buttons on the controller in part because I don’t yet know what they all do, but more importantly because I think the take-home lesson is how complicated it is to learn to mediate. Just when new mediators get their opening statement down, we remind them they need to summarize. When they are good at identifying the underlying needs and interests of the parties, we move to agreement writing. So many tactics, strategies, and approaches to use and sometimes too many confusing buttons.
What do mediators need as they learn to mediate? From my experience this weekend, I would say we need a patient teacher who doesn’t take the controls away to show us how to do it for too long (demonstration is helpful, but not as powerful as simulation), lots of opportunities to experiment and try new skills (maybe someone could invent a mediation simulation computer game?), someone to guide us through the stages of learning and celebrate with us as we attain each new level, and a healthy sense of humor to enjoy the mishaps on the way to being good at something, whether video games or mediation. Mostly we need an experienced, dedicated teacher who is not only good at what we want to learn, but good at teaching us. This may be a lot to ask from a teenage son, but not too much to expect from a mediator trainer.