In conversation with Mr. Pascal Comvalius on the future of Mediation in India

Pascal Comvalius is an IMI-certified/MFN Registered mediator with a specialisation in Family Divorce and Criminal Cases at Erickson Mediation Institute (EMI) with locations in Minneapolis, USA and the Hague in the Netherlands. In this interview, he talks about the future of Mediation in India. He has been interviewed by EBC/SCC Online Student Ambassador who is currently pursuing law from NLU Assam.

First of all, the team EBC–SCC OnLine extends warm greetings and welcome you. It is indeed a great opportunity for me on behalf of the SCC-EBC team to interview you for our readers.

  1. Before proceeding further with the interview would you please take a moment to tell our readers about yourself and your journey as a mediator?

My name is Pascal Comvalius and I am an IMI-certified/MFN Registered mediator with a specialisation in Family Divorce and Criminal Cases at Erickson Mediation Institute (EMI) with locations in Minneapolis, USA and the Hague in the Netherlands. I am also  a Certified Hostage Negotiator and a Suicide Prevention Gatekeeper. Sharing my knowledge and skills with students is important to me, which brought me to the privilege teach a Family Mediation course at the Supreme Court of Singapore and lead the same course in the United Arabic Emirates being the first one ever for that country. I was the Vice-p\President of the Academy of Professional Family Mediators (APFM) in the USA and I am currently the Chair of the Quality Assessment Program of IMI. My journey started in 2007 when I followed the basic training in mediation in the Netherlands after which I completed the Family Training at EMI under Steve Erickson and Marilyn McKnight which helped to shape 40 training in mediation as we know it starting in 1977. Under their supervision, I had attended multiple mediations performed by them before I even could start myself. After this internship I was on my own and was more and more interested in solving the most difficult cases which led to mediating criminal cases as well.

  1. So, what were the factors that led you to choose a career in mediation?

The factors to choose a career in this direction were mostly driven by private circumstances.  I was working and travelling around Europe for the roadside assistance in Holland. At one point I felt it was a time to make a choice between doing this work for years or doing something different. I found out as a participant of a Young Executive Program course that I only liked the travel part but not the actual job. People also noticed that there was some talent in me in the way I handled conflict. That was the start of a new beginning.

  1. What are the set of skills that a person should possess if he or she wants to be a successful mediator?

It depends on how you define success. I mean are you successful in the sense that you solved all the cases, yet your clients are not satisfied? My belief is that success is being defined by the clients. And if I take the feedback forms, which I always ask from my clients after the case is closed, into account I see the following skills come back. Being an active listener, be emphatic and show empathy, be patient, ask open-ended questions and do not be afraid of emotions. You also need to be eager to learn all the time and treat every case as this is your first case.

  1. If I get my facts right, you have pursued your MSc from Manchester Metropolitan University UK and also done quite a number of impressive trainings under many stalwarts in the field of mediation, so up to what extent do you think such trainings are necessary for all the students who want to pursue a career in mediation?

I believe these trainings are crucial to set you apart from the rest also from a career perspective. It is also good to learn different knowledge and skills and see how you can apply them in the mediation practice. Mediation is a relatively young profession and is still developing.  I believe students are able to take it to the next level and continue to build on the foundation we paved for them.

  1. You have successfully mediated a plethora of family/divorce and even criminal cases throughout the globe, what lacunae do you feel in the mediation proceedings conducted in India and what are the possible recommendations from your side to improve that?

Two factors are playing an essential role in this. The first is trust. Trust in the fact that mediation is a form of conflict resolution and is not in place of any other process. Second is informing the people that this is a possible option to solve disputes and that the agreement is binding among the parties. I see a lot of initiative of mediation organisations in India such as Centre for Advanced Mediation Practice (CAMP) to embed this and recommend these organisations to keep doing this. The acceptance of the Singapore Mediation Convention by India helps as well.

  1. So, as a student of law, if I were to pursue a career in mediation which universities should be on my radar and are there any set of diploma courses or programmes to hone mediation skills of law students?

The Maharashtra National Law University Mumbai started this year a two-year MA in Mediation in Conflict Resolution led by Tanu Mehta which is  first ever in India. I will be part of the lecturer’s team together with other great specialists such as Anish Quenim from Goa and Joel Lee from Singapore.  We unfortunately had to disappoint people since the amount of applications for this course is overwhelming. Both CAMP and Peacekeeping and Conflict Resolution Team (PACT) provide mediation courses as well as far as I am aware of.  And otherwise try to take a course from an organisation outside  India. On the IMI website you will find an overview.

  1. How important is doing proper legal research and how should law students equip themselves with legal research skills?

Interesting question. Within the context of mediation and in the role of a mediator, I experience that basic knowledge is enough. I am not a lawyer and do not carry a law degree. When I tell this to students they are in some sort of shock. Then I ask them the question “Is law the issue or are people having an issue?” I see if we solve the issue first then the legal experts of the parties can secure the practical implications of the agreement from a legal perspective. You can do all the research, prepare everything, and represent your client at the fullest and still you can lose a case. Why? Because the system is designed that way. In court you do not have fifty per cent chance to win but thirty-three per cent. You win, you lose or the court will rule something different which will not be in anyone’s favour.  I believe that every case is unique and should be approached that way from a mediation perspective. However, I can imagine that research is legal in different forms of conflict resolution.

  1. Not many people are familiar with the concept of “exhaustion of search”. What are you views on it?

Research can be of your advantage if you use it properly. There is so many research done that it could dazzle you. My recommendation is pick only what is relevant, easy to read and explain.

  1. Is there any straitjacket formula for mediation or honing any other soft skill development that an aspiring mediator or a law student should know?

Luckily, there is not such a thing otherwise  it would be a boring profession. A few steps give you a framework. First step is  prepare. I mean prepare in any way. Not only the information you have about your clients but yourself as well. Eat, drink and sleep well. Some meditation prior to a session, I find helpful as well. Second, get all the issues on the table. As soon you have all the issues and their underlying meanings to them clear, you can look at possible solutions. This process should be an out-of-the-box type thinking. Then go through the solutions and see if they are feasible for all parties and the last step is setting up the agreement. Never forget: it  is not over until the last signature is on the agreement.

  1. Who are the millennials in the field of mediation that you follow?

I can only talk about the people I have met and I must say that I am impressed how much talent is out there. The standards in mediation competitions in India are getting higher and higher. If there are names that I have to put forward, I would say Neha Talele, Nisshant Laroia and Neelam Kumari. Neelam, I met at a competition at RMNLU, Lucknow and I was so impressed with her talent that I immediately offered her a mediation course at our company.

  1. How far do you foresee mediation excelling in the legal framework of India?

It is going in the right direction given the fact that you can get a Masters degree in India. Unfortunately, I still see that mediation in India primarily is court annexed. The legal system would benefit if there would be a statute which would make mediation mandatory prior to any court procedures.

  1. Any specific set of dos and don’ts that you would recommend to students who want to set up a career in mediation?

(i) Don’t let anybody tell you that it is not possible;

(ii) do use your network  with law firms and social workers, psychologists;

(iii) do realise that you cannot solve every case; and

(iv) do enjoy what you are doing.

  1. On a personal front, what are your areas of interest apart from mediation and what does an ideal day in your life looks like?

I love to travel and to cook. It helps me to understand cultures and gets me more connected with people. I also believe in giving for a good cause and realise how fortunate I am. Recently I went to Kolkata to visit a leprosy centre. It broke my heart but holding their hands and looking them in the eyes and interacting with them was one of the best things I have done in a long time.

  1. Lastly, any parting message to our readers?

Never give up, don’t let gender, religion, background keep you away from living the dream.

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