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 – 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 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 training in May 2020. As we quickly shifted our training materials to an online format, learning the ins and outs of Zoom and shifting our curriculum to encourage online engagement reminded us of MWI’s first mediation training experience. Twenty-nine years ago, as we prepared to deliver our first mediation training, we wondered if our young organization could successfully present a training that prepared and inspired participants to mediate effectively.

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 felt like they gained immense skill in mediation in such a short period and 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.

We feared that sense of engagement and community 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 debates, informal chat conversations, and allowing participants to practice their skills in role-play simulations. We reviewed how 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. We did our best to think of everything. Of course, that big question still lingered: would this 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 much about mediation and grew their communication and negotiation skills to serve them professionally and personally. 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 reach 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 trainings were a success, we offer mediation training programs in May and October each year. The last two programs each had waiting lists, and we hope 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 can apply to observe and mediate small claims cases as a public service in fourteen Massachusetts courts. We believe training new mediators isn’t enough; we must provide them opportunities to flex and hone their newly acquired skills with actual cases.

We’re working with our court partners to refer cases for our mediators to mediate via Zoom and teleconferencing. We’ve made significant headway and referred court cases to our panel regularly. 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 allows parties 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 cdoran@mwi.org to learn more.

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