This is my first post on the Progressive Mediation blog. I thought it would be useful to share some of my experiences as a trainee mediator as it may help or inspire others who are looking to get into the profession.
When I first started training as a Family Mediator in 2012 I wrote a piece for a local paper about Family Mediation saying it was ‘set to explode’! My supervisor laughed. I wondered why she was so doubtful. It all looked very promising. Judges were supposed to be recommending people try Mediation before using the Courts, and the Government was making positive noises about increasing spending on Mediation. Surely a Mediation ‘explosion’ was inevitable? It didn’t turn out that way. The cuts to legal aid which came in April 2013, meant that many people – who had mostly never heard of Family Mediation – didn’t take the first step of talking to a solicitor who might have then referred them on to Mediation. Referrals dipped by nearly a half and services around the country have closed down, including the two of the biggest ones here in Bristol. Sometimes it feels like an odd time to be trying to start a career in Family Mediation.
Four years ago I had never heard of Family Mediation. I was working as an Advisor at Bristol Citizens Advice and picked up a leaflet about Family Mediation. I found out more and was particularly convinced by the idea of win/win solutions. That an agreement reached in Mediation can make both parties feel that their needs have been met, rather than that one has lost and the other won. That the process of Mediation can improve communication between ex-partners. It seemed like a fascinating and useful thing to do.
I’d worked for 10 years as a radio producer and once during that time had made a piece about Contact Centres. At that time I’d just had children myself so was particularly moved by the pain of parents meeting their children in this way. We also interviewed a Father struggling for contact with his young daughter and repeatedly being prevented by his ex partner. It was at the time when the law was being changed to give Judges powers to imprison and fine Mothers who block Court ordered Contact. I remember thinking at the time how blunt and inappropriate Court solutions were to these kinds of issues.
I also looked back on my only real experience of lawyers which was when I bought a flat. I was amazed how outdated, and long drawn out their working practices seemed to be. The expensive letters that never got replies, the fact that the two sets of lawyers never thought of picking up the phone to each other. And this is a process when both sets of people essentially want the same outcome. How much worse when two sides are in opposition to each other, and fighting for contact with their children, or a fair share of the assets?
My decision to train as a Family Mediator was quite easy, but the routes in were more difficult. I don’t have the traditional background of law, social work or counselling. A training course costs more than £2000 and there is no guarantee of work or a job at the end of it. I spoke to lots of people and was given very different advice, but everyone warned that too many people were training without any certainty about the amount of work around. They were right to be cautious. I have been lucky enough to get experience at a local service, but it’s still long way until I will be ready to find paid work as a Mediator. I need to write up a Portfolio of cases to demonstrate my competence in Mediation. It’s a large and daunting piece of work, and two years since I completed my formal training I have still not properly started it.
However I have Observed and Co-Mediated in many Family Mediation sessions now. And I love doing it. I am fascinated by the couples that come to us, how differently they handle their conflict, how they communicate, how they view each others behaviour. As I see more and more sessions, the process becomes familiar. I find it very satisfying to see the arc of the sessions, how openly disclosing their financial positions allows each party to see more clearly what is fair and what is possible. How seemingly impossibly differences over how much of a weekend a child should spend with which parent can be resolved. (Usually using the blessed flip-chart!) And how satisfying it is when the last bits of the agreement slot into place.
As I see more couples settle their differences in mediation, I get more confident that the process works. That feeling that I sometimes get in the first session – this is impossible, they will never agree, there isn’t enough money – lessens each time. In almost all the cases I’ve worked on it has been possible to reach agreement. And in the most satisfying ones I’ve seen a change of attitude between the parties, a growth of trust, a diminution of anger, and a developing confidence that they can sort out their differences in the future.
I remember one client who came for an initial meeting who had been married to a Family Lawyer and who was obviously upset. She looked at the Mediators at the end of the session and said ‘Thank you for your help. But this is not a nice field to be working in’. Luckily I disagree. You see people at their best and their worst, but usually by the end you see them relieved that they have done it, and ready to move on with their lives.
In April this year the law changed to make it compulsory for all couples wanting to use the Courts to at least meet with a Family Mediator first. Some of the people coming to see us need much more convincing of the benefits of Mediation. It finally feels like referrals are starting to rise again, even if the big explosion still hasn’t happened.