I’ll be the first to admit it. I am a 40-Hour Training Junkie. Let other people run their marathons. Show me a solid week of intensive, wall-to-wall learning, role plays, simulations, instruction, conversations, dialog, and camaraderie, and I’ll show you a happy Mediator. Last week, I completed the 40-Hour Divorce & Family Mediation Training at the Mosten Guthrie Academy, my fourth 40-hour Mediation Training in two years, and in many ways the best. I’m already considering my options for number five. Some would say that I should have known became “more than a casual hobby” somewhere between 80 to 120 hours of training ago, and that I should have checked myself into a good detox center before giving my deposit for number four. But the truth is, it wasn’t until Woody and Susan invited me to share my “unique perspective” about this that I realized I was unusual. (“You mean all those oval “26.2” bumper stickers I’ve been seeing on cars all these years aren’t the number of Mediation Training hours the drivers completed??”)
To paraphrase Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) from Ghostbusters, “when Woody Mosten and Susan Guthrie invite you to write for their Blog, you say YES!” That said, the reason they asked me to write this, and the real reason I agreed to do it, is to help others. Whether you are on hour 0.0 or 160.0, these trainings require a significant investment of time, money, and energy. If you’re going to do it, it’s worth doing it well. And if I can help you make the most out of your next 40 Hour Mediation Training experience, I will feel a little better about putting that oval 200.0 sticker on my car in a few months.
My advice is based on my experience taking four outstanding and very different intensive Mediation trainings. My first two (2019) were at Harvard Law School’s famed Program on Negotiation. One was the 5-Day Negotiation Workshop with Getting to Yes co-author, Bruce Patton. The other was the 5-Day Mediating Disputes Workshop with mediation legends Gary Friedman and Robert Mnookin. My third (2020) was the Basic Mediation Training at CORA Good Shepherd Mediation, Philadelphia’s wonderful (and only!) community-based, non-profit Mediation organization. My fourth (2021) was the extraordinary online 40-Hour Divorce & Family Mediation Training with mediation luminaries Woody Mosten and Susan Guthrie of the Mosten Guthrie Academy.
It’s hard to distill 160 hours of the best Mediation training on planet Earth into a few pearls of wisdom, but here is my Top 10:
1. Know your goals.
There are many reasons people take 40-Hour Mediation Trainings. One of the most common reasons is that the training is required to mediate professionally in your jurisdiction or as a prerequisite for membership in a professional organization or practice group. If you are taking the Training to fulfill a licensure or other professional requirement, start by picking up the phone and find out whether there is a list of approved courses and/or requirements for your Training. May it be online? Does it need to include an Ethics component? Must it include state-specific training? Does it need to be approved by a particular Board or Agency? Once you have narrowed down your list, call them back and ask specifically whether the courses you’re considering will qualify. Similarly, if you are hoping to get Continuing Education credit, make sure the Training is duly authorized and approved to issue the credits you are seeking and confirm how many you will receive.
Even if you are not required to take the Training and are not seeking credits, your goals matter. If you have been an active Mediator for 0-3 years, I recommend starting with a Mediation Basics course that offers a lot of hands-on practice opportunities and focuses on the fundamentals (i.e., everything covered in Getting to Yes). Look for courses that offer as many role-play and simulation opportunities as possible and avoid ones that are lecture-heavy. Read Getting to Yes before you start the training (and then read it again afterwards. Repeat at least once a year forever!).
I also strongly recommend that you find out ahead of time whether the Trainers subscribe to any particular “school” of Mediation (e.g., Evaluative, Transformative, Facilitative, etc.), and – most importantly – whether the Training will expose you to only one model or the full range. If you don’t know the difference between these models, here’s a good overview by the folks at Harvard. Ideally, you will have the chance to try out different mediation styles. But even if you don’t, it’s important to know where your Trainers are coming from and that there are other ways to mediate in addition to the one your Trainer prefers. You should also ask whether the Training teaches or forbids the use of “caucusing” (having the mediator meet separately with each party during the mediation). When I started out, I did not now that this was a serious debate in the Mediation world. It is! Here’s an excellent article about that debate by the good folks at Mediate.com.
If you are a more experienced Mediator (3+ years of recent, active Mediation experience), or recently took a Basic Training, consider taking an Intermediate- or Advanced-level Training. As with the Basic-level Training, I recommend selecting one that offers as much hands-on practice, observation, and feedback from Trainers and Cohorts. Avoid lecture-heavy courses, which will be far less useful. Also find out how the Trainers define “Intermediate” and “Advanced,” as the meanings of these terms vary widely. I always think it’s good to be somewhere in the Goldilocks Zone: not the least experienced, and not the most experienced among your Cohorts.
Finally, if your goal is to learn how to do a specialized type of Mediation (e.g., Divorce, Community, Multi-Party, Commercial, Employment, International, Special Education, etc.), I would recommend starting with a general (Basic) Mediation Training if possible, and then taking a separate subject-specific Training afterwards. If that’s not possible, find a subject-specific Training that devotes a considerable amount of time to Mediation Basics, which will be essential to whatever type of Mediation you wind up doing.
2. Find the best Trainers.
Before I choose a Training, I ask the most experienced Mediators I know who the best Trainers are. Usually, the people I ask have a lot of gray hair and have been Mediators longer than I’ve been alive. Often, they are current or past Presidents of established Mediation organizations or professional committees and have written and spoken extensively on Peacemaking topics. Most have been trainers themselves. Many are current or former college/university professors at law schools or graduate schools. These folks know who the best trainers are and are usually happy to give you a few names.
The professional reputation of the Trainer matters a lot. These Master Peacemakers didn’t earn their reputations because of their good looks or by accident. They are renowned because they are amazing at their craft. You want to learn from people who have a LOT of experience and who have trained a LOT of students. Nowadays, you can usually find at least a few videos on YouTube by or about any Trainer you’re considering and see for yourself.
Remember, the Trainer you choose will be the one observing you and giving you feedback. They will be the one sharing insights and experience and helping you apply the skills you’re learning to real world situations. They will be the ones asking and answering many of the most important questions that will come up during the Training. One of the most important relationships you will gain from this experience will be with the amazing Trainer you choose. So choose wisely!
3. Cohorts matter more than Trainers.
As important and extraordinary as your Trainer will be, there will be nothing (and I mean nothing!) more important to your 40 Hour Mediation Training than your Cohorts – the other students in your Training class. Just look at the numbers: In my 160 hours of Mediation Training, I have had a total of 6 Lead Trainers and approximately 200 cohorts. My Trainers were among the best in the world, but my Cohorts were literally from all over the world, all walks of life, all levels of experience, and – when all was said and done – the people I spent the most time interacting with and learned the most from. Ask anyone who has taken even one 40 Hour Mediation Training and I’d be willing to bet they will agree that their Cohorts were at least as important to their experience (and probably more so) than their Trainers.
Whenever possible, choose a Training that will attract the most diverse group of Cohorts. If you’re a lawyer, find a training that will have a lot of non-lawyers. Find out as much as you can about the professional and demographic backgrounds of recent graduates, and – if you can – about the others who have already registered for the Training you’re considering taking. These are the people you will be role-playing with, eating lunch with, learning from, observing, being observed by, and – if you play your cards right – many of them will remain your friends and colleagues after you graduate. The biggest mistake you could make would be to choose a Training that is filled with a bunch of people just like you!
4. Size matters.
The number of Trainers and Cohorts you will have does make a difference. While there are no magic numbers, I have found that two trainers are generally better than one, and that somewhere around 20-30 Cohorts works well. Having only one Trainer might be fine, but it’s wonderful to get the different perspectives that two bring to the experience, and it’s nice to have an occasional change of voice and instructional style during the 40 hours. Also, when there are two trainers, you’re likely to get more individual observation and feedback than if there’s only one. On occasion, you might find a Training that utilizes more than two Trainers. While this might be wonderful, you might also find that you aren’t getting enough time as you want and need from each of them.
It’s also worth finding out whether the Training will utilize Teaching Assistants in the delivery of instruction and observation/feedback. One of the highlights of the Harvard Mediation Training turned out to be the highly trained law students who ran our 20-person working groups. They were outstanding and enriched the experience for all the participants immensely. The Mosten Guthrie Training did not use any Teaching Assistants, but did deliver a truly unbelievable, All-Star roster of guest Master Mediators to supplement each day of the already incredible Training.
1. Clear your schedule.
Like marathons, 40 Hour Mediation Trainings (when done right) are intense, exhausting, all-consuming experiences that require serious focus and time. I learned the hard way how important it is to clear your professional and personal schedule as much as possible during the days of your training. During my first Training (Harvard’s Negotiation Course), I was literally in the middle of negotiating the sale of my law firm. As interesting (and occasionally helpful) as it was to be learning Negotiation from one of the authors of Getting to Yes during the most important negotiation of my life, I don’t recommend it! It was very distracting, and I had to leave class a few times to deal with it. Nor do I recommend taking a Mediation Training in the middle of your own divorce mediation (which I also did, during my second course at Harvard)!
With the sale of my business and my divorce behind me, I was able to focus and get more out of my trainings at Good Shepherd and Mosten Guthrie. While you won’t have control over when the Trainings are offered, and you can’t control when “Life Happens,” choosing a Training that you can take when you can have an otherwise clear plate can make an enormous difference to your overall experience.
2. Engage! With the material, your Trainers, and your Cohorts.
By the time you’re done with your 40 Hour Mediation Training you should be exhausted and exhilarated. No matter the cost, or how far you must travel to get there, the real investment you will make will be in the time and energy it takes to do the work and create enduring relationships with your Trainers and Cohorts. Do all the reading. Do all the homework. If possible, get a head start on all of that before the Training even begins. Most Trainings use fact patterns for simulations and role plays. The more time you spend learning the fact patterns beforehand, the more you will get out of the Trainings. In my experience, a good 40 Hour Training usually requires at least an hour or two of work outside of class for each day of the Training, so plan accordingly.
During the Training, remain engaged. Ask questions. Volunteer for exercises. Make it a point to be someone your Trainers and Cohorts remember fondly – someone who adds value to everyone’s experience. If all your Trainers and most of your Cohorts don’t know your name by the end of Hour 20, try harder to engage in the second 20 Hours. Set a goal to have at least one positive one-on-one interaction with all your Trainers and all your Cohorts by the end of the Training. Learn everyone’s name!
Because these experiences are more like marathons than sprints, it’s important to pace yourself and take good care of yourself during your Training days. That means getting enough sleep, eating right, and taking steps to keep yourself physically comfortable and mentally alert all day. Find out ahead of time whether you will need to bring your own food or snacks and what (if anything) they will have on hand for attendees. Donuts and cookies abound at many 40 Hour Trainings, so, if carbs make you sleepy, be sure to bring other types of snacks with you.
3. Take risks!
Whatever your reason for taking the Training, you are there because you want to become a better mediator. The only way to do that is to fail. A lot. Mediation is a beautiful combination craft, science, art, profession, ethic, sport, and trade. Nobody – not even your illustrious Trainer – was born a great mediator. They all became great by mediating a lot of conflicts, making a ton of mistakes, and by learning from others. The most valuable gift you can give yourself during those intense hours of training is to try out new things – techniques, voices, styles, approaches, strategies – that would be too risky to roll out for the first time in the field with real clients.
This might seem counterintuitive. You might think that the best use of your training time is to practice doing things the way you expect to do them in the field. I thought that too before my first Training, and I learned quickly that it’s a mistake. It’s a mistake because it presupposes that we already know what will work well for us and our clients. We don’t. Indeed, that’s why we need Training. If we ever want to be great mediators, we will need to learn new techniques, acquire new tools, and consider new perspectives and approaches. And the only way to do that is to try them on for size. There is no safer, more effective way to do that than during your Training.
4. Online or in person?
Before the pandemic, I never would have considered doing a 40 Hour Mediation Training online. I’m not even sure there were any such trainings before March 2020. It’s a different world now. The pandemic has totally transformed the world of mediation, creating an entirely new online reality for everyone in the profession, not only here in the United States, but all over the world. In this new reality, online Trainings are the norm, and in-person ones are hard to come by.
Of the four 40 Hour Mediation Trainings I took, only one of them (Mosten Guthrie, 2021) was online. I expect that the next one I take will also be online, and (though I can’t believe I’m saying this) I hope that it will be.
There is no doubt about it. What made the Harvard Mediation and Negotiation courses so amazing and worthwhile was getting to spend two whole weeks living, learning, eating, socializing, and training with extraordinarily bright and talented Peacemakers from all over the world. In my Negotiation class alone, there were people from more than 30 countries and probably a dozen states. I still have friends from those classes who live in Finland, Mexico, England, Australia, New Zealand, Lebanon, Canada, China, and elsewhere. Those experiences would not have been as rich had they taken place online.
But I was lucky. I got to take the Harvard trainings pre-Covid – before the entire world of mediation was pushed online. Today, almost all mediations happen online, and that means we mediators must learn how to function in the online environment. And that means we absolutely MUST train online with people who are not only Master Mediators, but who have also mastered the ways of online mediation. And on this point, I have one very simple recommendation: Train with Susan Guthrie and Woody Mosten. They were not only among the best Trainers in the world pre-Covid, but they have also absolutely mastered the practice of online mediating and training.
Enjoying this article? We thought so and there’s more! Come back Friday for Part Two!
Josh Kershenbaum trained as a Mediator with Forrest (“Woody”) Mosten and Susan Guthrie of the Mosten Guthrie Academy, as well as at Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation. He is an attorney and former public school teacher with more than 20 years of experience working with families of children and adults with special needs. Prior to becoming a full-time Peacemaker, Josh founded a law firm dedicated to representing parents and children in a wide array of legal matters, with a focus on Special Education law. As a Mediator, Josh helps K-12 and Higher Education institutions, students, and professionals create enduring solutions to their conflicts without litigation. He also provides specialized mediation services to divorcing parents of children and adults with special needs. He is a member of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals, the Pennsylvania Council of Mediators, and the Collaborative Law Professionals of Southeast Pennsylvania. Josh received his J.D., cum laude, from Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, where he has also served as an Adjunct Law Professor, and his B.A., magna cum laude, from Amherst College. He lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with his teenage son and two rescue kittens.