Updated January 2023
Your success as a mediator will depend on your ability to cultivate a sense of collaboration and trust between people in conflict. That's no easy feat.
After all, people usually enter into mediation because communication has broken down. Resentment, stress, and suspicion have made it difficult to see matters clearly—let alone negotiate a fair outcome!
Professional mediators need a toolkit of techniques they can use to break down those walls, create an atmosphere of trust, and get opposing sides talking in productive ways.
These are fundamental skills taught in mediation training - and competencies you'll continue to hone throughout your entire career.
Here are four ways to build rapport and break through mistrust during the mediation process.
Listening fully, without focusing on goals
It's quite common for mediators to fall into the trap of selective listening. They get so busy trying to filter and sort what they hear from clients into "relevant" and "irrelevant" categories that important nuances fall through the crack.
Mediators may even interrupt to probe deeper into a perceived "relevant" detail, and in doing so, miss out on key details—while undermining the rapport-building process.
Listening fully, without focusing on goals or interrupting, is often key to uncovering motivations and hidden issues. The sense of patience and openness this technique generates is also very helpful for establishing trust.
Using open questions that show you can relate
Open questions are obviously an important tool for building rapport because they encourage participants to divulge more about their perspectives, needs, and interests.
But just because you've asked an open question doesn't mean the participant will be ready to jump in with a generous response. One way to encourage mediation parties to open up and really engage in dialogue is to be strategic about the language and structure of your questions.
For example, you can reflect the language your participants use, and integrate phrases and terms they seem to favour. And you can structure your questions to demonstrate understanding and empathy rather than judgment.
For example, you might ask:
"Given that you feel strongly about_________, I'm wondering what your thoughts are on________?"
"Now that I have a better sense of your views on___________, would it be fair to say that________?"
This type of open questioning shows you've been fully listening, is non-offensive, and creates space to move the discussion in a new direction.
Balancing your attention between participants
When working to build trust and rapport, it is crucial for mediators to prove their neutrality. The mediator must never appear to favour one party over another or to enforce different rules between participants.
For example, it's important to monitor how much you have listened to and spoken with each person.
Right from the start, remind participants that you have nothing to gain from the outcome, and are completely dedicated to fair proceedings.
Be mindful of your reactions (obvious and subtle) to what participants say and do, so no personal judgments rise to the surface and undermine the rapport and trust you're trying to build.
It's also key to lay out the rules of engagement, such as zero tolerance for abusive or threatening language or actions.
Protect both parties from outbursts, and make it clear that your goal is to create a safe, mutually respectful space—and that this is a baseline requirement for effective mediation.
Don't try to change core values and beliefs
The role of the mediator is to move both parties toward a mutually beneficial resolution to a difficult conflict.
This does not include changing participants' worldviews or personal values. When mediators stray into this territory, they jeopardize trust by projecting judgment and criticism.
You cannot expect to alter years of entrenched beliefs. You may end up discussing certain non-productive behaviours and attitudes, but must be very careful about limiting this discussion to the negotiation at hand and the specific goals your group is working toward.
Nothing crushes neutrality, trust, and rapport faster than a mediator who oversteps her bounds and tries to challenge long-held beliefs that are peripheral to the issue at hand.
Learn more about mediation training
Whether you're an experienced negotiator or a complete novice, a successful career in mediation begins with quality training and certification.
Kompass offers a Mediation & Dispute Resolution certificate that can help you get started.
This course is accredited by the ADR Institute of Canada and meets the training requirement for the Qualified Mediator (Q.Med) designation.
Study online and earn your certificate in just 12 weeks.
Click below to learn more about the course and chat live with an advisor.