Key Communication Skills for the Mediator

by John Ford
(excerpt from John's book "Peace at Work")

Mediators are the custodians of the communication flow. They need to pay close attention to communication, both their own communication skills and the communication dynamics of the participants. They should strive to model clear communication that supports collaborative action, and be very aware of the challenge Shaw describes in the quote above. They should also be aware that to manage the conversation in a manner that maintains focus and supports resolution is a skill that matures over time.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
— George Bernard Shaw

Most mediators consider empathic listening to be their core skill. In addition, the advanced listening skill of reframing is vital. Mediators need to constantly reframe what they hear in order to discharge unnecessary negativity and personal attacks and thereby enable the conflict to be worked on productively. This is one of the most active ways in which they engage in the conflict. Mediators also need to ask a lot of questions, not to satisfy their curiosity but to support the conflict-resolution process. And when they need to assert themselves or be persuasive, mediators are tactful communicators.

This chapter focuses on the key communication skills that support the mediation process. Each of these skills is reviewed from the perspective of the mediator.

Empathic listening

“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” Ralph Nichols

Empathic (or reflective) listening is central to the work of the media- tor. As an intervention tool, it is second to none for its ability to build trust and confidence. It enables mediators to demonstrate that they grasp what is going on and understand the participants’ perspective – their needs, thoughts and feelings.

This kind of listening builds on closed-loop communication, which requires that the listener be able to demonstrate understan- ding of what has been said by reflecting the essence of the message back to the speaker. As empathic listeners, mediators do not simply attend to the factual content of what is being said. They also pay special attention to the underlying and often unstated emotional content. It is this latter emphasis that gives empathic listening its name.

When we empathize with someone, our goal is to reflect the other person’s emotions and their intensity accurately. We should empty our mind and listen to the speaker with our whole being so that we can show, in a respectful manner, that we have a sense of what that person is experiencing.

Paraphrasing (or summarizing) is the key way in which we demon- strate that we have understood the speaker. This does not require a restatement of every word, but rather an overview or outline of what has been said. Importantly, it accurately condenses what has been stated. It is an opportunity for the speaker to determine whether s/he has been heard and understood. For example, the mediator may say: “These seem to be the main points you have covered so far (content), and I hear that you are very troubled (feelings) about not knowing what to expect (needs).”

We use our social awareness skills and monitor each participant’s facial expressions and gestures for feeling cues. We may ask ourselves what we would feel in the circumstances, but should be careful not to transpose this onto the speaker. In reflecting back the emotional content, we should avoid statements like ‘I understand’ or ‘I know just how you feel’.

In addition to empathizing, we should validate. This means we acknowledge the validity of the person’s experience. For example, we may say: “In essence, what you are saying it that you are angry, and I can see that makes perfect sense to you, based on what you have just shared.”

Inexperienced mediators are often afraid to validate in case it creates the appearance of agreement and/or bias. However, you can anticipate this danger by reassuring both participants that your goal is to understand, not to agree, and that you will be doing that for both of them. Ultimately, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, because the second participant’s turn will come. Be sure to validate equally for both participants. When we remember the Gestalt theory of change (that people can change when they are allowed to expe- rience their feelings – see page 28), we appreciate why this is such a powerful technique.

To be able to accurately reflect back in an empathetic manner, we must give our full physical, mental and emotional attention to the speaker. Our body language should communicate the careful attention we are paying to the person who is talking. We need to be fully absorbed, and yet we should also (in a peripheral manner) pay attention to and sense how the other participant is faring.

Mediators should encourage the participants through the unobtru- sive use of words, sounds and gestures. We can use words and phrases like ‘yes’, ‘I see’, ‘mm-hmm’, ‘go on’, ‘tell me more’, etc. We can also use positive body cues at appropriate points, such as nods and smiles.

To signal your interest, you should lean slightly towards the speaker while maintaining an open, relaxed posture. You need to keep your physical movement to a minimum and avoid distracting or ambiguous gestures. Remember to look for opportunities to subtly mirror the communication behavior and language use of the speaker. Try to match rather than mix your metaphors, whether they be visual, auditory or kinesthetic. Be careful not to interrupt the flow of the conversation, and allow pauses.

If you take notes, do so unobtrusively after having first explained their purpose and assuring confidentiality. Note taking is a powerful tool for focus and supports accurate summaries. In addition to recording exactly what people say, note-taking helps to organize your identification and understanding of feelings, assumptions and needs.


Reframing is a tool we use to change the view of something. It recognizes that the frame we place to make sense of an event, situation or relationship is not neutral. The decision as to which frame to place therefore involves a conscious choice.

We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.
— Abraham Lincoln

The idiom ‘to kill two birds with one stone’ can be reframed as ‘to open two doors with one key’. The meaning may be the same, but the flavor of the two frames is very different. In the same way, while the phrase ‘he never listens’ could mean the same thing as ‘you need to be heard’, the former is framed as an attack, while the latter as a validation.

Which frame best supports resolution is a key question for mediators. Your task is to support the participants to experience a shift, whether it pertains to how they perceive the conflict situation, how they feel about one another, or how they view the world.

A reframe from a negative to a positive perception removes the sting. In the context of conflict resolution, the primary reframe is from conflict as a problem to conflict as an opportunity. This is not easy to appreciate when it is your conflict. That is why you need to be very careful not to appear patronizing.

Often, reframing can also be conceptualized as refocusing because the effect of the reframe is a new focus. Two ‘refocuses’ that are especially important for mediators involve the reframe from past to future, and that from demands to needs. Mediators point out that the past is gone and at best can serve to teach us lessons. By contrast, the future represents where the participants are going, and has the potential of being something better. As mediator, encourage the participants to choose a future orientation.

The reframe or refocus from demands to needs is paramount for mediators who use a problem-solving methodology. Many of those who do will recognize this idea from Getting to YES.1 In the book, the authors talk about ‘positions’ and ‘interests’. In my experience, people better understand the synonymous terms ‘demands’ and ‘needs’.

Mediators acknowledge the respective demands made by each participant, and invite both to also look at the needs that are motivating them to make these demands. Demands are predetermined and prescriptive. They are also closed and threatening. By contrast, when we talk about needs, we discover that we all have them. This refocus is liberating.

We can also reframe the definition of the conflict from a combative to a collaborative one that is most amenable to creative resolution. We reframe as a simple way of holding the mutuality of the challenge in view, so that participants see what they can do together to resolve the conflict. For example, instead of defining the conflict as ‘you have to…’ we define it as ‘how best can we…’.

In addition, how the individual issues are framed will significantly impact the ability of the participants to approach a conflict. The issues, as a description of what the participants need to resolve, should evoke a cooperative (not combative) reaction.

Much reframing, by changing the view into a more positive one, defuses negative and toxic communication behaviors, such as insults and verbal attacks. Reframing a statement helps to acknowledge feelings, validate needs and orient solutions to the future. Be sure to be as balanced and neutral as possible.

Here is an example of reframing. During a mediation, a supervisor says to you about her employee: “I refuse to work with him. He is certifiably incompetent. He never follows instructions and I do not know how many times I have had to bail him out of trouble!”

You sense her desperation and anxiety at the prospect of having to continue working with this employee. Your reframe may go some- thing like this: “ You sound desperate. Having employees who know what they are doing is important. Not being able to expect that they will listen and follow instructions is worrying. You hope for relation­ ships with your employees that are built on trust, and want to feel comfortable that they are able to do the job.”

One way to think of reframing is like the martial art of aikido. Instead of meeting negativity with equal force, which sets up unhelpful, eddy-like resistance patterns, you meet the negative energy, acknowledge it, and step aside to help it on its way.

Reframing provides insight into the role of the mediator as an intervener who engages with the conflict and seeks to move things in a productive direction. As you reframe, you need to be sensitive to the suitability and acceptability of the reframes. You may suggest a reframe, but the participants should decide as to its efficacy.

Most fundamentally, mediators use reframing to shift a negative perception to a positive one. A reframe is always a movement from one thing to another thing, for instance:

  • competition to collaboration
  • protection to learning
  • blame to trust
  • confusion to clarity
  • doubt to certainty
  • destructive to creative
  • helpless to confident
  • arrogant to vulnerable
  • unique to normal
  • external to internal

Asking questions

Mediators need to ask a lot of questions. But they should not interrogate, humiliate and embarrass the participants. There should be a reason for every question, one that supports the mediation process. Mediators should not ask questions to satisfy their random curiosity. Asking questions is not an opportunity to make a statement or express an opinion. Nor is it a way to communicate how you feel. Rather, questions are a way to discover information that will help you to understand accurately the needs, beliefs or feelings of the participants.

Problems that remain persistently insoluble should always be suspected as questions asked in the wrong way.
— Alan Watts

Questions are powerful tools to establish focus and are strongly suggestive of what you consider relevant. However, they can put a participant off track. Try not to intimidate the participant with persistent questions. Sometimes, it pays to be patient and to wait and see if your questions are eventually answered.

Mediators can ask questions in a variety of ways. Open-ended questions are a great way to get participants talking openly, especially at the outset of the mediation when they are sharing their perspectives of what has happened: “How do you see things?” Closed-ended questions expect a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, or a short phrase. They are helpful when you seek confirmation: “Is this helping?” After the question has been answered, you have an opportunity to influence what happens next. Probing questions help you to understand the deeper issues, but they involve risk. “Why?” is a powerful probing question that mediators use to uncover underlying needs. “ What will you do if you do not agree?” is a question that forces participants to consider the consequences of not agreeing. Leading questions are useful when you want to confirm something, or test a hypothesis: “Am I correct in assuming that keeping your job is important to you?”

As you move through the stages of a typical mediation, you will ask a variety of questions tailored to the needs of the moment.

Assertion: ‘I’ statements, and saying ‘no’

Mediators need to be able to role model and coach effective communication behavior. This includes being able to assert yourself and maintain your boundaries. At times, you may need to let either or both of the participants know how their behavior has impacted you, and to request a change.

A ‘no’ uttered from deepest conviction is better and greater than a ‘yes’ merely uttered to please, or what is worse, to avoid trouble.
— Mahatma Gandhi

The current high point in the development of our communication technology for giving feedback is what is called the ‘I’ statement. Mediators ought to use them, and also encourage participants to use them. ‘I’ statements are different from ‘you’ statements in that the latter shut down communication. They are therefore ineffective communicators of what people really need, or want changed. They are also blaming and make people defensive.

By contrast, ‘I’ statements open up communication. They require you to be honest and direct, and include an unspoken request for what you need. Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication, is based on this simple ‘I’ statement technology. It requires that we are able to do four things: to describe what it is we are observing; to identify how we feel about what we have observed; to articulate our needs that are not being met and which give rise to our feelings; and to describe the concrete actions we need to move forward.2 The four elements that play out in this formula are:

  • When… (describe behavior in non-blaming terms)
  • I feel… (describe your feelings)
  • Because… (describe the impact on your needs)
  • Make a positive behavior request

For example: “I feel frustrated when you start talking before I have finished because I forget what I wanted to say. I would appreciate it if you could let me finish talking first.”

When coaching participants in the use of ‘I’ statements, be sure to alert them to the common mistake of saying ‘I feel like…’ or ‘I feel that…’.3 The words that follow these formulations are seldom descriptive of what people are feeling, for example, the following sentence does not describe feelings: “I feel that you should have supported me in the meeting.”

Saying ‘no’ is a key assertion skill that is linked to knowledge of your boundaries. For example, what would you do if a participant asked you to make a decision? Or if you were asked by a friend to divulge what had happened in a private mediation? Would you say ‘no’? Saying ‘no’ is appropriate when people make requests that would violate our reasonable and lawful boundaries.

In his new book, The Power of a Positive No, William Ury reminds us that when we say ‘no’ to something, we are saying ‘yes’ to something else.4 Communicating this with care and kindness can make all the difference. For example: “I have committed to keeping the communications in the mediation confidential. Keeping my word is important. I hope you will understand why I cannot talk about what happened.”

Managing flow

Mediators exercise much of their influence through the way they manage the flow of communication. Some mediators are more structured and controlling, while others believe you should follow, not lead.

The quality of the imagination is to flow and not to freeze.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

This is where your intuitive sensitivity and imagination come into play. You are aware of a variety of qualities that could describe the communication dynamics in a mediation. Like a river, sometimes things appear to flow smoothly and you hardly need to say a word. At other times, things are languid and everything feels heavy and difficult, or the nervousness/excitement is palpable, like water splashing over rocks. Be comfortable with it all, and be ready to intervene and shift the dynamics if and when you need to. This means that you need to be able to both let go and take control. Remember, your role is to support the participants to resolve their conflict.

What is important is to let the participants finish speaking and give them the time to find their way. Too often, in the haste to cut to the chase, we miss vital communications. As Gregorio Billikopf would say: “Allow the pause!”.5 The pause is often a time of mental regrouping in which we make sense of what we have just heard ourselves say. Pausing and reflecting often sets participants up to take the deeper path to what is really going on. Simply put, be comfortable with silence – it creates space for awareness.

If the conversation appears to lose focus, you may want to check in with the participants to see if what they are talking about is relevant and necessary.

If one of the participants is being repetitive, consider first the need to demonstrate that you have understood. If the repetition continues after you have listened actively, try something along these lines: “It is clear that this is very important to you. Is there anything else that is also important for us to understand?”

Notice how the closed-ended question will restore control to you as the mediator.

In the case of repetitiveness, you may want to try another tactic altogether – a global summary that attempts to create a working frame to look at the issues of both participants in a balanced way. For example, you may say: “You both seem to be saying that a solution needs to be found regarding the maintenance of the calendar. You have different solutions in mind. We are here to find the most creative solution using all your available resources.”

Sometimes, the challenge is to draw someone out and make sure that there is more balance to the flow. Keys to this challenge are patience and being comfortable with silence.