At the ripe age of 36 I took on my first unpaid internship. The hours were reasonable and the company, “MWI” had its own ice cream fridge. But most importantly it gave me the chance to explore a newfound passion in mediation. Which eventually led me to co-founding my own company, Venn Mediation. This is my journey. 

New York Divorce

Alnoor Maherali, Mediator @ Venn Mediation

I can still remember the first day that I learned of mediation as a profession, and that I could get paid money to do something I enjoyed. I was in the midst of an intensive two-week module on negotiation at the Harvard Kennedy School. Megan Winkeler of MWI came in that day to teach our class the basics of mediation and then ran us through simulations so we could try out the methods. I am generally conflict-averse and was taking the module to become a better negotiator. But mediation resonated with me from the moment I learned of it; the thought of enabling others to resolve their conflicts while using empathy, active listening, and process leadership. I came home that night, exhausted after a grueling 12 hour day. But I was sparked in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time. I typed the word ‘mediation’ into Google and three hours later my mind was buzzing. Right then I knew that mediation was something I must pursue.

I sought out ways to get more experience, exposure, and training. I contacted Megan, who informed me of an opening in MWI’s internship program. Following an application and interview, I was paired with Josh Hoch, MWI’s Director of Mediation Services, who specializes in family and divorce mediation. Much of the MWI internship was research, writing, and general support to Josh. My favorite part was getting the chance to observe his divorce mediations. It was an odd experience as I was in the middle of planning my own wedding. But it was also very rewarding, both from a personal and professional perspective. I got to see how Josh navigated people through the divorce process while still enabling their self-determination on the issues. In mediation this is critical to any sustainable outcome. And I learned various tools mediators use to get stuck parties moving, like the listening triangle (Listen, Reflect, Ask), highlighting shared interests, and exploring a party’s BATMA (their best alternative to a mediated agreement). After every session Josh and I would debrief – so I could understand why he did what he did and reflect on what I had learned.

An added bonus to the internship was the chance to participate in MWI training programs for mediators. I took their foundational Mediation Training and then a specialized Divorce Mediation training and began to develop my abilities. Upon completion of the training, I entered MWI’s Court Mediation Program and observed a couple of cases in District Court. However, before I was able to complete the practical training and mediate my own cases, I graduated and moved to New York City.

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I sought out opportunities to mediate in New York and quickly learned, as most new mediators learn, that: (a) mediation can be a difficult field to crack into; (b) people most commonly seek out lawyers for mediation, though you don’t require a legal background to mediate; and (c) awareness and appreciation for the benefits of mediation as an alternative to litigation are low. Many new mediators will seek to join community mediation rosters, like I did with MWI. They do this to get experience and improve their skills. Meanwhile, though the State of New York has standardized training requirements, most community organizations require you to take their own training before you can join their roster. It was frustrating in the early days as I was unable to get any opportunities.

I decided to get my practical experience with the New York Peace Institute (NYPI), and took their 40-hour basic training. I then successfully applied to their apprenticeship program which provided small group training over a 4 month period. At the end of the program, I was eligible to mediate community cases. By then, it was just over a year after that initial excitement. And to be honest, my drive was starting to wane. But when I finally got to mediate a real case, I felt rejuvenated. Meanwhile, I was still getting support from my mentors at MWI and making connections in New York, through the NY-Dispute Resolution listserv, and the Association for Conflict Resolution New York Chapter. I’ve met some really interesting people through both and continue to advance my skills and knowledge of ADR. And recently MWI brought me back as a mentor/coach for their basic training, which was a truly rewarding experience.

During the NYPI training, I met Ehsan Ali, a New York lawyer and all around great guy who shares my passion for mediation and whose abilities I admire. When the COVID-19 crisis struck, tensions ran high, and there were reports of skyrocketing familial and business conflicts, our experience and skill drove us to do something. And thus, we started our own company – Venn Mediation.

Now Ehsan and I regularly publish content, sharing our unique perspectives on conflict resolution, and market the company to our personal networks and the general public. We are committed to making every effort to turn Venn into a full-time venture. It will take time to build a client base and a brand/reputation. Meanwhile, we continue to mediate with the Peace Institute. We recognize the importance of contributing to our local community and acknowledge our roots.

The road ahead looks long but I believe that it’s worth it. It’s become increasingly evident that the mediation space requires diverse and fresh perspectives and I am happy to contribute to the discourse. If you are a new mediator, feel free to reach out to Venn as we are happy to support people on their own journeys. And if you are in the midst of conflict and need some assistance finding your way through, please contact us. We would love to help.

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