What do you find to be the most challenging or stressful aspect of your mediation practice and how do you manage it?
Balancing a growing mediation practice while still practising law can be challenging at times. To address this, I have restricted the type and amount of legal work I take on, and I carefully manage my legal clients’ expectations. For example, they know that I cannot be reached while I am mediating. That said, the fact that I don’t handle trials or most other court work anymore makes me relatively accessible, and I can take on more mediations. It’s also important to have a supportive team and to be able to delegate. Finally, learning to say “no” to non-essential demands on your time is crucial – although not easy at first.
Is there any particular activity that you engage in outside of practice that you find helps you unwind or otherwise supports your wellness as a mediator?
Combining physical exercise and mindfulness soon after the mediation ends and you are alone. One thing I find particularly useful is a “walking meditation” (not a walking “mediation” – although I find mediating offers more opportunity to move around than practising law!). I was fortunate to take an MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) course years ago where I learned various ways to get out of my head and into the present moment. This builds resilience. A walking meditation is great for people who don’t like to sit and meditate (although I do that as well at other times), and you have the added bonus of exercise. There are various kinds of walking meditations, but the simplest and my favourite, is just to count your steps while you briskly walk anywhere. Of course, keep your eyes open and be aware of your surroundings. Try to count up to 10 steps, and then go back to 1 and count again. You likely won’t get to 10 without your mind drifting off. That’s fine. When you catch your mind wandering, don’t judge yourself (just like a mediator won’t judge the parties to a dispute). Minds wander; it’s their job. You just start counting again from 1, over and over - and keep walking. Try this for 10 minutes and see if you can work up to 20 or 30 minutes over weeks or months. The fact that mediation and meditation have similar spellings – and the non-judgment aspect of both activities -- can be a useful reminder or incentive to perform this exercise.
What aspect of mediating poses the greatest obstacles for your own health and well-being? Do you have any strategies to manage this?
I have written previously about how not eating while mediating – or not eating well and on time – it is an obstacle. I still have challenges in that regard, but it’s a lot better now because I pack my own (healthful, non-perishable) food that I can eat on the fly. It makes a huge difference. Recently, I discovered the importance of ensuring I am properly hydrated as well, so I usually will have a water bottle in my hand. In fact, all mediation participants should drink more water – especially to counteract caffeine intake, poor air, or fatigue. It improves your mood and promotes clearer thinking.
Do you have any advice for fellow or aspiring mediators in terms of developing strategies to preserve good mental health?
Aside from developing healthy habits like some of those described above, for me, having meaningful relationships with others is vital to our well-being.
In addition to the support of family and friends outside of the mediation world, I cannot overstate the importance of being part of a community of fellow practitioners. Try to get to know some of your colleagues. Even an on-line community and resources can be helpful – and I think by launching ADR Athletics you have done our profession a great service. Participating in organizations like ADRIO (or your province’s ADRIC affiliate if you live outside Ontario), FDRIO, the OBA’s/CBA’s ADR Sections, or the International Academy of Mediators (IAM) -- and attending their programs -- can also help you feel part of a community and forge meaningful relationships.
Have you ever experienced an action by a party mediating that posed a risk to your physical or mental well-being? If so, what did you do to protect yourself?
Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about practising law.
Have you ever experienced compassion fatigue? If so, how have you dealt with it?
I have experienced it as a lawyer at times, but not yet as a mediator. I say “yet” because the day may come if I want to do more mediation work, which is my goal. So learning now how others deal with compassion fatigue in a mediation context is important.
Is there anything you do in preparing to mediate to safeguard your health and well-being?
Decide from the outset that you will focus only on your own efforts, and not the results at the end of the mediation session. We all have less control than we would like to believe. I think mediators should be tenacious – but the focus is on what we can do (and not do) and not what the other parties ultimately decide to do. It is their dispute, and not ours. Know when to exert effort and when to let go.
Mediators often work with parties who have intense emotions that surface in the course of a mediation. How do you do draw the line between empathizing and not letting yourself get caught up in emotion at the negotiation table?
By remembering and staying within the boundaries of my role as a “neutral” and a facilitator. This includes not taking other people’s displays of strong emotions personally. As well, the relatively short interventions in the types of disputes I mediate (within one day) help me keep my distance, but still be effective and allow people to feel heard. In fact, I think what makes me most effective is recognizing boundaries and focusing only on what I can control.
To learn more about Mitchell's practice, click here.
interview conducted July 2019