Can You Really Train Mediators Online? Reflecting On MWI’s Experience

By Chuck Doran and Megan Winkeler

MWI has offered mediation training every year since 1994. The program was held in many different venues over that time – at a district courthouse, the Union Club of Boston, One Financial Center, the Boston Bar Association, and most recently, MWI’s office and training space in Boston. One place the mediation training was never held: online.

Can You Really Train Mediators Online?

There were many practical reasons for avoiding the shift to an online format. Would our classroom discussions really be as rich? How would participants learn the physical aspects of being a mediator – body language, setting up the room, reading the exchange between parties, etc.? Could anyone logistically manage several role play groups through videoconferencing? And, perhaps most importantly, would trainers and participants be able to build the strong connections we’ve enjoyed at all our other programs?

COVID-19 and the nationwide lockdown forced MWI’s hand, and we delivered our first online forty-hour mediation trainings in May of 2020. As we quickly shifted our training materials to an online format over the past few months, learning the ins and outs of Zoom and shifting our curriculum to encourage online engagement, it reminded us of MWI’s first mediation training experience. Twenty-six years ago, as we prepared to deliver our very first mediation workshop, we wondered if our young organization could successfully present a workshop that both informed and inspired participants.

Looking Back

“What makes you think you can do this?”

In 1994, as we were about to deliver our first mediation training in the library of a district courthouse, the attorney who asked this question meant it in the kindest way possible. But he had a point: MWI was less than a year old, and training new mediators was still an untested vision. We were confident in the accomplished, talented training team who would be sharing their expertise, and we knew the curriculum was strong. There was still vulnerability in doing something for the first time, though, and a big question lingered: would this really work?

Those doubts were proven wrong, and participants raved. They not only felt like they gained immense skill in mediation in such a short period of time, but they also appreciated the rich discussions they engaged in with the trainers and other participants. The training wasn’t just about becoming a mediator; it was about building a community with like-minded practitioners who saw value in empowering parties to resolve their own disputes.

It was that sense of engagement and community that we feared would be lost during an online workshop. We spent hours designing an approach that wouldn’t leave participants feeling confined by the small squares on the screen. We built systems for small group discussions and debate, for informal chat conversation, and for allowing participants to practice their skills in role play simulations. We reviewed the way we delivered lectures to ensure our content would still be engaging and interesting outside of the classroom, without flipcharts or participants arranged neatly at small tables in front of us. We did our best to think of everything. Of course, that big question still lingered: would this really work?

We’re proud to say that, after reviewing participants’ feedback from our first few programs, MWI’s online mediation training model is a success. Participants reported that they learned amount about mediation, and they grew their communication and negotiation skills in ways that would serve them in their professional and personal lives. And, just as importantly, almost every feedback form stated that they felt extremely engaged in discussions with other participants and trainers.

Despite being online, these workshops were filled with energy and enthusiasm. During our end-of-the-training happy hour, gathered with drinks and happily exhausted by a long week of learning, people shared how much they appreciated building new relationships with everyone in the workshop, the support they provided to each other, and the community they created over the week we spent together.

And unlike MWI’s in-person programs, this community was not limited by participants’ ability to get to our Boston office. People could easily jump on a work call or help their child with homework during a break – no commute into the city, no turning down an opportunity because you can’t step away from work for five full days. And we weren’t limited by geography. Participants joined us from all over including Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, California – even Amsterdam!

Looking Forward

Knowing that our online mediation workshops were a success, we’re offering more workshops in March and in May of each year . The last two programs each had waiting lists, and we hope that we’ll be able to train just as many people in upcoming programs.

Our engagement with trainees doesn’t end after the training, though. All of our trainees have an opportunity to apply to join MWI’s Court Mediation Panel, where new mediators are able to observe and mediate small claims cases as a public service in thirteen Massachusetts courts. We believe that training new mediators isn’t enough; we have a duty to provide them with opportunities to flex and hone their newly acquired skills with actual cases.

Despite the challenges the pandemic has presented with court closures and restrictions on gatherings, we’re working with the courts to refer cases for our mediators to mediate virtually via Zoom and teleconferencing. We’ve made significant headway and referring court cases to our panel on a regular basis. Now more than ever, the service provided by our panel is incredibly important. Not only does it help mitigate months of backlog for the courts, it also provides parties with an opportunity to resolve their dispute without ever stepping foot in a courtroom.

Adapting to the realities of COVID-19 challenged us in many ways, but it also opened new opportunities. Our mediation training and services are more accessible than ever before. While the circumstances forcing us to move our workshops online are unfortunate, it has been humbling to reassess our assumptions about what can or can’t work. And it’s exciting to see the opportunities that lie ahead. Conflict has thrived through the stress and uncertainty of the past few months. We believe that mediation offers an opportunity to turn these challenges into opportunities for growth, innovation, and change. With a cohort of newly-trained mediators more diverse than ever before, we’re excited to make those opportunities a reality.

Interested in becoming a mediator?  You can learn more and register at https://www.mwi.org/mediation-training. You can also reach out directly to Chuck Doran, Executive Director, at 617-895-4026 or cdoran@mwi.org to learn more.

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