Defining quality in dispute resolution can be a tricky process. It is particularly contentious when we consider that we are yet to reach consensus on how to define processes such as conciliation and mediation. Any attempt to define quality needs to strike a balance between being overly specific and overly general. Being too specific can result in a reductive and prescriptive checklist that limits a practitioner’s ability to respond to the needs of the parties. Being too general often results in a set of descriptors that are essentially meaningless or unhelpful to practitioners trying to reflect on or develop their practice.
One way to address this tension is to draw on existing cross-disciplinary frameworks which describe stages of development that focus less on what practitioners do and more on how or why they do it. By adopting this approach dispute resolution professionals have access to rich descriptions of practice that are flexible enough to accommodate a range of mediation models or practitioner styles.
To help practitioners start to work in this way, we developed a series of developmental scales for mediation that provide a snapshot of the knowledge, skills and attitudes as they typically develop in mediators. Feel free to use the developmental scales for mediation to get a baseline of your own knowledge, skills and attitudes. It is important to be mindful that not every mediator starts in the same place, and that development is not strictly linear. Even so, these tables can provide an indication of the typical behaviours that mediators may display at different stages of their professional development. These tables can be used as a general guide or can inform the development of quality assurance frameworks for specific dispute resolution programs or mediation models.
For example, these scales formed the basis of the Quality Assurance Frameworks (QAFs) developed by our very own Danielle Hutchinson for the Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria (DSCV) within the Department of Justice and Community Safety Victoria (DJCS). Tailored QAFs were developed for their community mediation stream, personal safety intervention order stream, and Fast Track Mediation and Hearing (FTMH) partnership with the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). An example of these program specific QAFs can be found here QAF examples.
The DSCV QAF was designed to be a collaborative and confidential process where both an assessor and mediator complete an assessment of a live mediation. Feedback from mediators who have participated in the QAF process has been extremely positive. Typically mediators say that they genuinely appreciate the opportunity to actively reflect on their practice and set evidence-based, targeted professional learning goals that they can monitor over time. The also say that the QAF serves as an instructional framework which clearly describes what quality looks like and provides insight into the steps they will need to take to improve their practice.
Whether it is a QAF or an industry-wide standards framework like the one we are currently designing as part of the review of the National Mediator Accreditation System (NMAS), this inherent instructional capacity is essential to enabling self-reflective practice and targeted professional growth across novice and expert practitioners alike. Using the evidence-based tools such as the guidelines for writing quality criteria is key to not only ensuring your QAF or professional standards are flexible and transparent, but also that they can be relied upon to inform practice in a consistent and meaningful way.