Decoding Body Language During Mediation: What Can Gestures Tell You?

Posted by Herzing Blog on Dec 20, 2017 12:46:48 PM

Have you heard of "power posing"?

Social psychologist and noted TED speaker, Amy Cuddy, revolutionized the world of communication by demonstrating how certain gestures can dramatically affect how we perceive ourselves, see other people—and possibly even alter body chemistry!

To prove her point, Cuddy shows how assuming "confident" poses, versus body positions that denote insecurity and anxiety, can genuinely change the way we feel and completely alter how others see us.

According to Cuddy, holding a "power pose" for just two minutes is enough to alter our communication style, outlook, and overall confidence level.

Now imagine how these ideas play out during mediation proceedings.

Despite debate over precisely what percentage of communication is actually non-verbal, we all know from experience that gestures and facial expressions are powerful influencers.

Research like Cuddy's reinforces these ideas and adds weight to the argument that understanding (and leveraging) body language is crucial for people in facilitator roles.

So, how can professional mediators (or mediators-in-training) use an understanding of body language to conduct more productive negotiations? These are a few simple ideas to keep in mind at your next client meeting.

Recognizing signs of anxiety during mediation

Many mediations are inherently stressful. Opposing parties have arrived at the negotiation table because all else has failed: they haven't been able to resolve the issue on their own, and court is looming as a last resort.

One of the mediator's most important goals is to help diffuse mistrust and apprehension, so participants can get down to work, and find a mutually beneficial resolution to their problem.

The first step toward achieving this goal is recognizing which individuals are most anxious—easier said than done, given that most of us work very hard to hide signs of fear and distress.

When gauging the emotional climate of your mediation sessions, keep an eye out for the body language cues that reveal a client is struggling with anxiety:

  • inability to keep still (frequent crossing and un-crossing of legs, foot tapping, fidgeting with clothes or papers, adjusting position in the chair)
  • frequent throat-clearing (anxiety boosts adrenaline, which can reduce saliva production)
  • looking toward the exit, or pointing the feet/body toward the door
  • a trembling lip or hands
  • repeated frowning, raised eyebrows
  • sweating
  • crossed arms (a classic defensive posture for people who feel threatened)
  • unusually pale face (when under stress, blood drains away from the extremities toward the body's core to protect vital organs)

Anticipating anger & conflict

Unchecked stress and anxiety can quickly escalate to angry outbursts. Mediators are often challenged with "high-conflict" clients, whose unrestrained rage can completely derail meetings and undermine the professionalism of the mediator.

What are some gestures you can watch for to anticipate meltdowns, and attempt to intervene before anger erupts?

These are some typical warning signs our bodies give out when we experience heightened levels of frustration:

  • a flushed or red face
  • leaning forward, invading the space of an opposing party 
  • clenched fists
  • clenched jaw
  • sarcastic eye-rolling
  • rapid breathing
  • crossed arms
  • pointing or jabbing fingers
  • rapid body motions
  • shaking
  • sticking out the face, jaw, or neck

If you're seeing a combination of these non-verbal cues, it's definitely time for a break—and to re-affirm the goals of mediation: to reach a resolution that both parties are comfortable with, without blaming or recrimination.

Communicating empathy & non-judgment

A key part of establishing your reliability as a mediator is convincing both sides that you empathize with their struggles, do not judge their wants and needs, and can be trusted to represent everyone's best interests. No small task!

You may not realize it, but your body language plays a major role in reinforcing (or undermining) your projection of neutrality, empathy, and commitment to fair process.

Consider these non-verbal cues for creating a safe space in which both parties feel respected and supported:

  • mirror the expression of whomever you're speaking to (if they smile, you can smile also; if they are serious, ensure your expression reflects, and thus validates, their emotions)
  • hold steady eye contact when addressing each individual (shifty eyes are strongly associated with untrustworthiness and disinterest)
  • open your arms (crossed arms suggest judgment and criticism)
  • keep your palms open and fingers unclenched (open hands communicate trust)
  • nod your head to show understanding, interest, and care
  • tilt your head and body toward the speaker
  • go easy on the note-taking (staring at your computer screen or note pad will interfere with making eye contact, and demonstrating that you're listening closely)

Obviously, there are many cues and signals to watch for and control while conducting mediation. Begin by making an effort to notice just a handful of gestures that feel most relevant to your work.

Over time, your sensitivity to non-verbal language will deepen, adding a substantial layer of sophistication to your skills as a facilitator.

Interested in learning more about mediation training and skill-building? Just starting out, and looking for a reliable mediation certificate program?

Consider the Mediation for Professionals Certificate offered by Kompass Professional Development, and accredited by the ADR Institute of Ontario.

Click below to see a complete list of courses, meet the instructor, learn about our online learning format—or chat live with a friendly advisor. We're here to help!

Learn More About the Mediation & Dispute Resolution Certificate



Topics: mediation for professionals certificate, mediation training, mediation certificate program, Kompass Professional Development

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