Street Side: Running into Mediation Clients

At a sporting event. In the doctor's office. On the way to your therapist appointment. Outside your child's school. On the bus. At the gym. There are so many places where a mediator could run into former -- or, gasp -- current clients.

This seemed particularly true when I worked for a large court system where mediation was a mandatory part of the visitation and custody dispute legal process and where I mediated an average of 130 cases per year. I've yet to see the ramifications of mediating in a "small town" but I'm sure it will be interesting.

So what do other mediators do about this? I've never heard any consistent answer to how mediators address the issue of bumping into clients outside the mediation room. Some mediators -- the ones blessed with a good enough memory to recognize the client in the first place, perhaps even recall his or her name -- have told me that they wait and see if the client acknowledges them first before acknowledging the client. Others have told me that they say hello and quickly continue on their way. Still others have told me of being regaled with post-mediation stories and even complaints about the other party with whom they had mediated. I've even heard stories of unexpected hugs, tears, and laughter as a client recalls his or her mediation experience and how it had impacted his or her life.

I've heard therapists discuss this more than mediators and therefore wonder if it is more straightforward for them. Since I'm not a therapist, I can only guess. Given that the therapy process, and even attending therapy itself, is confidential, I would imagine that it's perfectly okay, and perhaps even expected, for a therapist to wait for a client to acknowledge them before greeting the client. Yet while the process of mediation itself is confidential, the fact that people are in mediation is often not confidential, given the number of cases that are referred through the very public court system. If, as a mediator, you pretend not to notice the client, you may be minimally perceived as unfriendly, or even worse, as biased toward the other party with whom they mediated. If you acknowledge the client, you risk breaking some contextual confidentiality and perhaps risk appearing biased in the other direction (especially if it's a current client). There's even some possibility that the client whom you ran into could misrepresent this encounter to the other party, thus complicating the timing and method of your disclosure.

Also, given that therapy is often longer-term than most mediation, the therapist is more likely to recall the specific client, his or her name, perhaps even the issues that were being addressed in therapy. Mediation can be as short as a one-time occurrence for an hour or two, depending on the nature of the conflict. For someone with a not-so-good memory, like myself, this makes recalling specifics extremely difficult. Therefore, acknowledging that I recognize a client means potentially being put through the laborious task of trying to recall the specific details of their case while simultaneously being updated as to what happened post-mediation thus risking my neutrality for any future mediation sessions.

There have been times when I've invested so much in a particular mediation, felt a unique connection with the clients, and/or experienced curiosity as to what happened next that I thought I would welcome the opportunity to receive some information as to how everyone was doing. Yet the experience of running into clients street-side is a complicated one for a mediator (and probably for therapists, doctors, and others working with the public as well), and no matter how curious I may be after the clients walk out my door, I can't help but appreciate the finality that comes with the end of a mediation.

I wonder, though, if such finality is ever really possible, especially when you're mediating within a smaller community. I chose to set up private practice just outside the city because I wanted to have a larger impact on my surroundings, to feel more connected to the community. Yet thinking about the impact of a street-side encounter on the mediation process in general, and on me personally, I can't help but imagine the possibility of bumping into clients every time I walk out my office door.

There are definitely worse things, to imagine, though, like never having clients to see ... ever. I guess I'll have to make my peace with the street-side encounter because the alternative is far less pleasant.

By Laura L. Noah
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