Working as a family mediator between squabbling couples is tough but rewarding

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The Independent Online

Family breakdown can be costly in many ways. It can cause financial hardship, lead to acrimonious court battles, and have a lasting effect on the emotional wellbeing of any children involved. But a good family mediator could make all the difference and can often help warring couples sort out their problems without ending up in court.

Mediators work for charities, solicitors' practices and local mediation services to help couples come to an agreement over child custody and contact arrangements. They also sort out financial matters such as maintenance, property and pension funds. It's something the Government is keen to encourage and Jackie Norton, a freelance family mediator with 10 years' experience, has noticed that workloads have been growing over the last few years. But she is quick to dispel common misconceptions about the job. "It's not about getting people back together," she says. "It's for people who have already decided to separate. A mediator helps them to negotiate and have conversations that would often end in a row if they were alone." Mediators don't tell couples what to do, or give financial and legal advice. Rather, they signpost them to the information they need, so they can come up with their own solutions.

"I've seen the most embittered, angry and openly hostile couples come to an agreement that you know they are going to be able to manage because they have gone through a process where they are listened to and acknowledged as the experts in their family's needs. Coming to their own decisions means they are much more likely to stick to them," she says. Norton also works extensively with children as part of the consultation process and once had a child ring up asking for mediation for her parents. "Children, while they should never be put in the position of making decisions, are amazing in their capacity to cope with family change and see the obvious solutions. They are often more adult than the adults," she says.

Although divorce and separation form the bulk of the work, mediators also handle cases of conflict between a parent and teenager, or arguments over an estate. Experienced practitioners can also move into management, consultation, and training and supervision of other mediators. It's a flexible career and some choose to work part-time or on a freelance basis. The skills you learn on the job are transferable and there are opportunities to expand into other areas such as workplace mediation, which is often more lucrative.

A background in counselling and social or legal work can be useful, but not a prerequisite. Norton fell into the profession by accident – after a management degree, she took an administrative job with a family mediation service and found the process so interesting that she decided to train as one herself. It is more important that prospective mediators have excellent listening skills, an interest in people and what makes them tick, and the ability to put their own views to one side and be non-judgemental. The job has its challenges, says Norton. "Full-time mediation can be draining as it takes a lot of concentration. You have to be able to tolerate working with people shouting and being horrible to each other. We try to stop people arguing, but sometimes they just need to get it out."

The rewards are huge, especially when a particularly hostile couple manage to come to an agreement, she says. "People place a lot of trust in you and that's a real privilege. It's very satisfying to see them let go of painful experiences and move on, and be able to talk about the future in a much more positive way."

Break it down: Getting started as a mediator

* Get started by volunteering at a family centre or child contact centre – see the National Association of Child Contact Centres (naccc.org.uk).

* Foundation training courses, which usually take place over several weekends, are run by member organisations of the Family Mediation Council (familymediationcouncil.org.uk) and cost between £1,000 and £2,000. It may also be possible to find a funded trainee position with a mediation service.

* After initial training, supervised experience and a case study portfolio leads to recognition by the Legal Services Commission and allows you to take on legal aid work.

* A mediator earns between £25,000 and £30,000 rising to around £35,000 with a management or training role. Workplace mediation pays upwards of £350 per day.

* For further information visit: National Family Mediation (nfm.org.uk); The Family Mediators Association (fma.co.uk); College of Mediators; (collegeofmediators.co.uk)

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