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Quality Assurance

NAFCM developed a system for mediation center quality assurance and improvement. Recognizing the diversity of programs, funding systems, community needs, and organizational structures, NAFCM's system is not prescriptive, but is an elicitive tool designed to help programs assess their goals and values and develop strategies for furthering them through their work.

One of the pressing issues in the mediation field is the need to assure clients of the quality of services provided by mediators. NAFCM embarked on a two-year project to develop a set of "best practices" for community mediation centers to meet this need, resulting in the publication of the Community Mediation Center Self-Assessment Manual. Below is an article by former NAFCM Board members addressing the quality issue.


In 2000, thanks to a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the National Association for Community Mediation (NAFCM) embarked on a two-year project to develop a new approach to mediation quality assurance which focuses on ways that community mediation centers could improve and assure the quality of their services. 

This project has culminated in the publication of NAFCM’s Community Mediation Center Self-Assessment Manual. While the full details of this quality assurance system will be detailed in the Manual, certain basic statements summarize NAFCM’s positions on this issue. NAFCM's self-assessment manual assumes the existence of a community-based organization which reflects the diversity of its community and which has an on-going interactive relationship with its community. NAFCM believes that community mediation centers are intended to be a reflection of each community including the multitude of traditions, customs, and values. 

NAFCM further believes that an effective community mediation center is a collaboration between mediators, staff, boards of directors, supporters (including those agencies referring cases to mediation), and community. The keystone of quality service is a consistent effort to develop training, services, systems, and protocols that align the most fundamental ethics and underpinnings of mediation with the needs and values of the community being served. 

NAFCM believes that quality assurance is a process rather than an end and is best supported through organizational self-reflection, careful systems design, collaboration with the community, and continuous improvement. 

  1. NAFCM believes that the most crucial skill of mediators is found in their ability to apply theoretical knowledge in a variety of diverse, live, real-world situations. While NAFCM firmly believes that a mediator's competence and abilities should be observed, evaluated and constantly enhanced, we equally firmly believe that a mediator's competence cannot be accurately measured by paper and pencil testing, academic degrees or hours of training, and other static forms of credentialing. These are ineffective means of assuring quality service. Many of the tests would exclude skilled mediators from approval for reasons unrelated to their competence (e.g. academic degree requirements, written tests, assumptions about literacy and competence, cultural difference, language, mediation methodology).
  2. NAFCM believes that a whole-systems approach to quality assurance is the best possible method. Community mediation centers provide that approach through: (a) The center's on-going relationship with the trained volunteer mediators, the community, and referral sources; (b) A commitment to a continuous growth and learning process for the volunteers, centers and the community; and (c) The translation of current mediation theory and methodology into quality practice that is congruent with the diverse cultures it serves. Mediators providing direct services to clients within such quality centers, provide quality mediation services.


By Melissa Brodrick, Ben Carroll & Barbara Hart

An important issue facing mediators is an increasing concern with "professionalization," and particularly qualifications - also variously described as certification or credentialing. For some, "professionalism" implies positive movement involving a maturing body of experience, steps to promote consistent quality, and recognition of the value of mediation and mediators. Others are concerned that "professionalism" is, or may become, a code word for commercialization, self-interest, and de-valuation of volunteer mediators by particular organizations or occupations. From either perspective, mediator qualifications or certification is an important element of this dialogue that NAFCM members will be exploring in the coming months. Most practitioners would agree that mediation skills are acquired through high quality training and practice and that degrees and courses don't necessarily guarantee competent practice. Thus, performance-based assessment provides more reliable information concerning mediator quality than formal education or profession. Nevertheless, we are beginning to see more restrictive legislation that mandates particular degrees or licenses as prerequisites for certain areas of practice. Community mediation, because it relies on trained volunteer community mediators, is concerned with this exclusionary trend. NAFCM believes that this qualifications dialogue will be most productive if it focuses on the principle of quality assurance and practices that community mediation centers can establish to ensure quality. As a starting point, NAFCM has created the following quality assurance statement.


Community mediation programs throughout the United States have been preparing individuals to provide mediation and dispute resolution services in their communities for over twenty years. These community programs, by their very nature, are representative of the diversity and differing environments of the communities they serve. Common to community mediation programs is the tradition of high quality practitioner development and the delivery of consistently high caliber services. This quality assurance is achieved through a process of skill development and performance assessment which typically includes:
  • Screening and Recruitment. Community mediation training participants are carefully recruited to reflect the diversity of the community and screened to identify individuals whose personal skills and commitment to community service are well-suited for the role of mediator. Screening usually includes a detailed application and often a follow-up interview. In addition, many programs provide a job description, pre-application information sessions, and reference checks.
  • Basic Mediation Training. Successful completion of a basic community mediation training is mandatory for participation with a community mediation program. Trainings are typically about 30 hours. Basic mediation skills training courses of 30-50 hours emphasize interactive participation, encouraging "learning by doing" in a constructive and supportive atmosphere. Trainings include a mixture of theory and practice that enhances the performance of trainees and provides a variety of learning techniques that reflect a sensitivity to individual learning styles. Preparation and role-play exercises are designed to reflect specific dispute types handled by the mediation program.
  • Evaluation of Mediation Training Participants. Evaluation of a community mediation training participant's mediation skills is ongoing and comprehensive. Evaluation includes explicit criteria for successful completion of a basic training and is conducted during and/or directly following each role play by the observing trainer (with a limited number of participants per trainer) and at the conclusion of the basic training based on the observations of the training team as a whole. Evaluations are shared in person or in writing.
  • Apprenticeship. Apprenticeship with a community mediation program follows the successful completion of a basic community mediation training and offers challenges appropriate to the general skill level of the newly trained mediator. Apprenticeship includes observation of actual cases, conducting mediation sessions with or observed by a skilled mediator who will conduct debriefing sessions with the apprentice and provide the apprentice and program with an evaluation of the apprentice's competency, often including formal written assessment. Successful completion of apprenticeship is necessary for continued mediation.
  • Co-mediation Model. Community mediation programs support the widespread use of co-mediation to provide opportunities for peer mentorship and peer review.
  • Continuing Education. Continuing education is either strongly recommended or often required by community mediation programs in order to retain and enhance the skills necessary to provide quality mediation services on an ongoing basis.
  • Advanced Training. Advanced training is required by community mediation programs that provide mediation services in substantive areas such as custody and visitation, parent-child, housing, victim-offender, commercial, special education, and public policy. Participants in these trainings must have successfully completed a basic mediation training and must demonstrate sufficient competency in the area of advanced practice in order to provide these mediation services.
  • Trainer Qualities and Responsibilities. The process of helping people improve their interpersonal and facilitative skills as mediators is an intimate one. It requires a training participant to demonstrate a willingness to take risks, perform publicly, and receive critical coaching and an effective mediation trainer to be sensitive to each participant's needs and individual learning style and pace. The community mediation trainer will generally have extensive experience as a mediator in order to be accepted as a credible teacher and role model. Thorough knowledge of the mediation process and a mediator's techniques and strategic choices is also essential. Teaching skills that a community mediation program requires of its trainers also include flexibility concerning approach, effective presentation skills, an ability to promote positive group dynamics among learners, a sense of the developmental nature of skills acquisition, and a lively stage presence.
  • Trainer/Training Evaluation. Community mediation programs solicit evaluations of the training and each trainer during and at the conclusion of each training presented. Feedback from training participants contributes to the ongoing refinement of effective training materials and styles.
  • Standards of Practice. Many community mediation programs, some in collaboration with their statewide association, have developed guidelines or standards of practice which govern the conduct of their community mediators. Community mediation programs believe that mediators have an obligation to the public and the profession to conduct their practice in a competent and ethical manner. Central to the code of behavior required of community mediators is a commitment to respect for the parties and the mediation process. Central also is the personal integrity with which each mediator enhances the quality of the process. Community mediation programs also believe that the principles reflected in these standards should be inherent in the training given to mediators and in the policies and procedures of the centers.


What is noteworthy about community mediation programs is the evolution of systems which ensure continual review and improvement among the volunteer mediator pools, particularly through the mentoring and apprenticeship process. As noted above, standards and guidelines can be an important part of these quality assurance systems, but are by no means a substitute for the integrated programs and procedures. A concern of community mediators is the promotion by some interest groups of stand-alone qualifications or certification standards which set up artificial barriers, exclude competent mediators and limit the availability of dispute resolution for certain ethnic and socio-economic groups. Inasmuch as some of these certification efforts are being presented to courts and other agencies and institutions which govern access to dispute resolution services, the National Association for Community Mediation (NAFCM) is reviewing the impact of certification on community mediation programs and access to services. NAFCM has formed a working committee and invites other interested NAFCM members to participate in (1) establishing a clearinghouse of information on quality assurance, practice standards, certification movements, and related issues; and (2) developing community mediation policies and position papers on these issues.

To initiate discussion within NAFCM, and without endorsing particular standards, NAFCM suggests that any standards of practice should:
  • Foster high quality mediation services with an emphasis on performance-based competency rather than academic degrees;
  • Strive for inclusion and diversity among practitioners, and by doing so encourage the same among users;
  • Promote creativity, innovation, flexibility, autonomy, and evolution of practice while maintaining process integrity;
  • Be practical, with a balance between the aspirational and realistic;
  • Be clearly understandable to all users and providers; and
  • Draw upon existing experience and resources in the field, including the rich history and current practice of community mediation programs.
What else is NAFCM doing in this area? It is NAFCM's intent to coordinate our work in the area of mediator qualifications with other dispute resolution organizations and practitioners in order to:
  • Provide the experience, expertise and broad perspective available from community mediators and mediation centers;
  • Prevent duplication of effort in the research and development of these issues;
  • Prevent misuse of qualifications or standards to exclude competent mediators and/or reduce the availability of services; and
  • Provide NAFCM membership with resources and assistance on these issues.
NAFCM makes certain assumptions in reviewing qualifications and certification issues:
  • Many people who practice "professionally" receive their training and experience as volunteers or staff in the community mediation setting. The wealth of experience in community mediation in virtually all types of disputes is unmatched by any other group or sector.
  • NAFCM is particularly suited to address the concerns of, and advocate for mediation participants by virtue of the diversity and representative nature of community mediator pools, the concern for affordability of services, and the independence of member centers from concerns of judicial expediency (e.g., clearing court case backlogs).
  • Academic schooling/degrees, occupation (e.g., mental health), or professional licensing (bar membership) are not determinative of competency in dispute resolution. Some would argue these are seldom even relevant. No particular type or degree of prior education or job experience is an effective predictor of success as a mediator.
  • 'Grand-fathering' (allowing "uncertifiable" mediators to practice simply because they are already practicing) cannot cure or justify exclusionary or discriminatory certification requirements.
  • Community mediation centers have developed a variety of approaches to assure competence of practitioners which have been tested and proven over the past twenty years. Formal certification is certainly not the only way to do this and may not even be a good way.
How you can be involved? NAFCM is asking all interested parties to assist with the following:
  • Provide reaction, additions, suggestions, comments, or criticism to the idea of NAFCM's Quality Assurance Statement and assumptions suggested above. Because of the number and diversity of programs within community mediation, a wide range of ideas is available and needs to be represented in any such statement.
  • Let NAFCM know of any certification standards or requirements in your state or organization. NAFCM is compiling a database of this information and will also develop a clearinghouse of these materials.
  • If your state is considering implementation of required certification, please advise NAFCM of this effort.


What has been done in this area? A considerable body of work has been developed over the last fifteen years in developing and refining practice standards and ethical codes for mediators. Some of these are mandatory for members of particular associations or those who practice in particular arenas (e.g., court programs) but a majority are aspirational. Over the years, many national groups such as the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts and Academy of Family Mediators have devised standards for their practice areas. The latest and most wide-ranging effort is the Model Standards of Conduct for Mediators (1995, American Bar Association, American Arbitration Association, and Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution). In the area of performance standards, qualifications, and competencies, the SPIDR Commission on Qualifications and the collaborative Test Design Project have taken the lead. In their 1989 report, the SPIDR commission recommended that: "Academic degrees should not be a prerequisite for service as a neutral. Rather, qualification criteria, whether mandated by public bodies or adopted voluntarily by private agencies, should be based on performance, emphasizing the knowledge and particular skills necessary for competent practice." In addition, SPIDR felt that mandating such standards would be dependent on whether the client has a choice of neutral or dispute resolution process. "The extent to which qualifications for neutral are mandated should vary by the degree of choice the parties have over the dispute resolution process, the program offering the dispute resolution services, and the neutral. The greater the degree of choice, the less mandatory should be the requirements." The Test Design group, including members of NAFCM's Board, worked to provide a methodology to implement assessment of mediators which is "context sensitive" and avoids "premature closure of the field."

The following readings provide background for certification:
  • Ensuring Competence and Quality in Dispute Resolution Practice, Report No. 2 of the SPIDR Commission on Qualifications (April 1995).
  • Qualifying Neutrals: the basic principles, Report of the SPIDR Commission on Qualifications (April 1989).
  • Performance-Based Assessment: A Methodology for Use in Selecting, Training and Evaluating Mediators, Test Design Project (NIDR 1995).
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