To Niche or Not to Niche ... ?

Much of the literature on marketing a mediation practice strongly suggests finding a niche and sticking with it. If you have experience with families, focus on divorce mediation. If you have experience with insurance claims, stick with mediating insurance claims. This makes a lot of sense from a marketing standpoint. People are going to want to hire a mediator who has accumulated experience in a particular specialty area related to their conflict, right? That's what we're told at least.

Here's my problem with that advice; it may (and I suggest does) lead to stagnation within individual mediators and therefore within the field itself. Yes, it's important both ethically and professionally that a mediator have appropriate skills and experience mediating particular issues in particular kinds of cases. What about mediators who have experience, education, skills and training within a variety of mediation settings? The advice is still the same: if you want your mediation practice to be successful, you must specialize.

That, in my opinion, has more to do with the way in which mediators are choosing to market their practice than about potential loss in quality of service. Mediators have been led to believe that non-mediators are too clueless about mediation to be capable of successfully and independently choosing the professional with the style/approach/skills most appropriate for their conflict. We make it easy for them by starting our independent businesses, practices or consulting engagements by "choosing" and marketing an area of specialty that a) exists in a context in which we are familiar i.e. comfortable, but not necessarily one we favor b) has the largest pool of potential clients to which we can successfully sell our services. It's as if mediators feel we need to grab what we can, as if there were a finite number of conflicts in the world.

As mediators, we may save money in marketing costs and business development by targeting a particular audience or context for our services, but what do we lose? More importantly, what do our clients lose when we specialize?

I have recently added the title of Professor to my list of various employment roles. Through teaching I am re-learning everything that I was taught years ago. Through the eyes of my students, I see the vast array of possibilities within the conflict resolution field that the actual work of trying to make a living off my profession had begun to hammer out of me.

In class this week we were discussing what might qualify a mediator to work with them if they were parties in mediation. Many of the students said that they would not only look for an experienced mediator, but would seek one with experience particular to the contextual area in which their conflict was taking place (employment, family, etc). One student raised his hand and said that he would want the opposite. He would want a mediator with a variety of mediation experiences because it would only be through those experiences that the mediator would have developed a breadth of skills (I'm using my words to summarize his statement).

The mediation field is young enough that how we frame it now will determine how clients come to understand it later. If we tell clients that good mediators specialize, then that is what they will expect. If, on the other hand, we think back to how *most* of us learned how to mediate within a variety of contexts and settings, we may remember that cross-contextual mediation pushed us and challenged us to become good at what we did. Specialization and niche marketing encourages mediators to remain within their comfort zone which, I would hazard to say, may lead to mediator shortcuts and an absence of creativity in the application of techniques.

Specialization usually equates with expertise. If someone is a specialist in a particular area than they know how best to provide services in that area. In my opinion, that is not entirely true with mediation. While, as I stated, mediators must absolutely have experience, education, training, etc., within the context and/or setting in which they are mediating, a presumed "expertise" may also prevent mediators from challenging themselves. One way in which to ensure professional growth in such a dynamic field as mediation is for mediators to push themselves beyond what feels comfortable, automatic, and/or rote. Yes, every case is different regardless of whether or not the context or setting stays the same. Yet mediator "style" rarely shifts, changes, or expands within a particular setting, and this is a hazard within the field.

If we have a problem with our foot, we go to a podiatrist. If we have cancer, we don't just want a cancer doctor, but a doctor who specializes in the particular type of cancer with which we've been afflicted. We choose these specialists because the variability in most professions is more finite. The goal in most fields is to limit, categorize, and narrow in order to apply previous learning to current solutions. In mediation, the variability is infinite from moment to moment, person to person, and the goal is often to expand possible options and relevant solutions. If you are doing the same kinds of cases over and over again, it is difficult to not narrow and categorize and therefore apply blanket solutions to every situation that may appear similar. In mediation, expanding rather than narrowing is what most often leads to successful resolution. I would argue that being open-minded going into a mediation, a necessary state of mind for success, is a function of the variety and breadth of experiences we have as mediators. As mediators, our role is to ensure that we are always creating space. We limit and shrink as a matter of mediator strategy, not as a matter of course.

Mediating in a variety of contexts and settings reminds us that there is always more to know, ways to be better, new strategies to employ. That is what is essential to building a successful mediation practice. If you're a mediator who is willing to push and challenge yourself in constant learning, able to recognize your strengths and weaknesses, and willing to seek out the knowledge that you don't have, the clients will find you.

By Laura L. Noah
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