03 December 2020

"A mediator must have cultural awareness, sensitivity, and engage actively in anti-bias training"

Alvaro Navarro Sotillos, Editor in Chief of The Impact Lawyers Magazine, had the pleasure to conduct an email interview with Winter Wheeler. Winter Wheeler is an Atlanta, Georgia, USA based mediator and arbitrator. She is available for both in-person and online bookings. Winter is a co-author of the #1 bestselling book Networked.

1. When did you decide to engage in mediation?

My career has been focused almost exclusively on mediation and arbitration for a little over one year now, but I knew shortly after starting my legal career that alternative dispute resolution was where I wanted to end up long term

After graduating from law school, I joined a traditional law firm. My goal at that time was pretty standard for a young American lawyer: become the best litigator I could, bring in business to the firm, and one day make partner. But of course, as part of litigating my cases, I went to mediation very frequently. Mediation days were always my favorite

In my capacity as a litigator, mediation was a fantastic opportunity to go back through the file, make doubly sure that I had covered all of my bases, and start seriously thinking about what the trial of that matter might look like. I also got a rush from the negotiation process involved in mediation. I probably would not have verbalized it that way at the time. I simply knew that I derived a lot of joy and excitement from the mediation process.

Eventually, though, I realized that I was much happier during mediation than I ever was while actively litigating. At that point I started to wonder whether I wanted to be in the role of mediator, instead of that of lawyer. I was able to attend a few mediations as the guest of the mediator, and at that point it was abundantly clear that mediation was my calling

I went on to practice law for 14 plus years, but eventually I made the switch to full-time mediation. 

2. What significant differences do you see in the world of mediation compared to the world of traditional judicial processes?

Traditional judicial process is very rigid and very rule driven, so it is nearly impossible to compare it to mediation at all. Mediation intentionally removes a case from the court system and looks for informal resolution. Mediation can be used to prevent a lawsuit from coming to fruition at all, it can be used for purposes of fact-finding or discovery, to settle matters pretrial, or to settle matters during the appellate process. What is best about mediation over the traditional process is the amount of control that the parties have over the outcome of their case

3. Do you think mediation institutions are adapting to the changes required by the pandemic crisis?

Alternative dispute resolution providers have completely met the challenges of the pandemic. Many are surprised to hear this, but mediation has been available virtually for about the past decade. What has been fascinating to watch, though, is the rapidity with which those of us who were not previously offering those services were able to pivot and do so as well

With the courts closed for most of the year (and many still closed or only partially open), it is alternative dispute professionals like me that have kept the justice system from completely collapsing. I am very proud of the work that we have done as an industry. 

4. What qualities do you think a good mediation professional should have?

A good mediator has to be empathetic with all involved parties, show everyone concern and support, while simultaneously remaining neutral and detached. It is an incredibly difficult balance to strike, not many can do it at all, and far fewer do it well. 

A great mediator needs to be an active listener. A mediator’s listening skills go far beyond simply hearing, retaining, and recalling what was stated, but we must match the words with body language and other subtly gathered information

A mediator must have cultural awareness, sensitivity, and engage actively in anti-bias training. To truly be neutral, mediators must be able to welcome everyone to the table without judgment of any kind. All sexes, genders, races, religions, nationalities, sexualities, etc. need to be on equal footing with the mediator. Short of that, the mediation has failed before it has even started

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