Updated January 2023
It's quite possible that opposing parties of a mediation will not trust each other. Whatever issue has brought them to this process, you can assume both sides are feeling anxious and have their walls up.
This is why it's so crucial that all participants be able to trust you, the mediator. You are the one objective individual at the negotiation table—the stable centre in the midst of all those swirling emotions, expectations, and uncertainty.
From the very first point of contact until the issue at hand has been resolved, the mediator must earn and maintain the trust of his or her clients. One of the key ways mediators accomplish this is by cultivating rapport, putting participants at ease, and establishing an atmosphere of cooperation.
But in their eagerness to build rapport, mediators sometimes stumble into traps. Take a look at four common mistakes to avoid when you're seeking to connect with your clients.
1. Trying too hard
Mediators use several techniques to cultivate rapport with clients—calculated strategies like "matching", "pacing," and "leading," which involve carefully monitoring your client's physical stance and movements and positioning yourself in ways that will engage without threatening.
The goal is to show each client they have your full attention and respect, without a trace of artifice.
Things go wrong when the mediator tries too hard and exaggerates the technique, so the client becomes aware that a strategy is being used to gain their trust.
For example, you're attempting to mirror, or "match" your client's physical posture and gestures—but make your efforts so obvious, the client figures out what you're up to and immediately shuts down.
When clients suspect their mediator is using tricks to connect, they usually feel mocked or manipulated—the exact opposite of what you're aiming for!
2. Over-sharing rather than listening
It's a common misconception that building rapport is all about talking. And while asking well-timed, thoughtful questions is indeed important, simply talking for talking's sake will really work against your efforts to create an open and trusting mediation environment.
Part of building a positive connection with mediation clients is learning about who they are, how they think, and what motivates their decisions.
If you're busy talking about yourself or trying to fill awkward silences with chatter, you'll miss out on all the subtle messages and non-verbal cues your clients are giving off. Or they simply won't get a word in edgewise.
Either way, the focus should be encouraging clients to open up—and not over-sharing about yourself. It can be very tempting to default to rambling, especially when clients are quiet or not ready to divulge much about themselves.
Remember that building rapport takes time and is a delicate process. Push too hard, and those walls will go up for good.
3. Accidentally paying one client more attention than others
Mediators must be very cautious about equally distributing attention among the primary participants of each mediation. Spend too long addressing one client, and the other(s) will begin to suspect you're biased in their favour.
Even your position in the room and body language can compromise your legitimacy as a neutral third party. Be mindful to engage with all participants equally (including non-verbally), and make sure you're not inadvertently alienating or excluding anyone.
4. Not thoroughly explaining what to expect during mediation
Mediation must be a transparent exercise. From the very first meeting, it's important to set realistic expectations, emphasize shared goals, underscore your commitment to fairness and neutrality, and explain exactly how the process will unfold.
If the mediator doesn't take the time to outline the nature of his or her role and what clients should expect, it will be difficult to encourage openness and foster trust.
Be up front about what the mediation will entail and keep clients updated on next steps so there are no unpleasant surprises—and no one feels misled or manipulated.
Set the standard of cooperation, honesty, and disclosure, and hopefully your clients will follow suit.
Are you a professional mediator who is interested in learning more about fostering trust and openness with clients? Looking for targeted professional development training for mediators?
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