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Without Compulsion: Teaching Mediators Empathy

by Gregorio Billikopf
January 2015 Gregorio Billikopf
When training mediators in the past, I have usually offered a series of two-day seminars covering such topics as empathic listening, mediation of conflicts between peers, mediation of hierarchical conflicts, and coaching parties on interpersonal negotiation skills (learning how to effectively deal with disagreement). The last seminar of the series consisted of helping mediators learn how to deal with their own disagreements while reducing defensiveness in themselves and in others. Because this last topic is of interest to a wider audience beyond mediators, and because it touches participants deeply—after all, they are learning how to deal with their own conflicts—these seminars were particularly popular.

Because the last seminar was directed to a wider audience, I delivered the workshop strictly as a way to improve our own interpersonal relations. Parenthetically, I say our, because as I teach these principles of dealing with disagreement without defensiveness, they are a constant reminder of ways I can improve. The only tie-in for the mediators, was that they could both model and pass on these skills to their clientele. Now, as we shall see, I realize that I missed a major teaching opportunity: the prospect of using this last seminar to teach mediators empathy.

A few months ago, I began a year-round mediation class in Chile. Because of the popularity of the defensiveness seminar in California, I decided to start with the last seminar, on the topic of avoiding defensiveness. Using a tool I call seven words, participants learn how to: (1) establish a psychological connection through a conversation not related to the issue at hand (a step that may have to be repeated for a period of time before moving on to step two); (2) briefly introduce the fact that they have something important they wish to discuss; (3) speak something of a positive nature about the other party before diving into this topic to be discussed; (4) briefly introduce the topic of controversy by speaking slowly, softly, tentatively and using seven words or less; (5) let the other know they are being heard; (6) share their own perspectives and views now that they have listened to that of the other party; and (7) search for sustainable solutions (for a detailed description of these steps, download pp. 119-130, of the 4thedition of the book, Party-Directed Mediation: Facilitating Dialogue between Individuals from the University of California—can be easily found by googling the name of the book).

Because of the active participation of everyone involved, we work with groups of 14 or less. At the outset, each participant shares a conflict situation that meets the following criteria: (1) a real issue that has not yet been resolved; (2) the issue should be at least a 5 in seriousness on a scale of 1 to 10 (where 10 means one cannot sleep at night); (3) preferably an issue where the participant will see the counterpart in the near future; and (4) a matter we are willing to share with the rest of the participants who are present. We have a confidentiality agreement. We replace the name of the meeting location for Vegas in the saying: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas!”

Participants tend to choose a family or a workplace situation. Occasionally someone has nothing to share when we get started. These matters often weigh heavily on the participants either because of the high degree of seriousness involved or because of the long duration of the particular challenge being shared, or both. Because the purpose of this paper is to speak about empathy and about avoidance of compulsion, we will skip to step three in the process. As we get to step three, it is not infrequent that participants are surprised to be asked to say something positive about their counterpart.

When we are in conflict, our counterparts become our enemies. We block positive feelings we may have about them. We may try and bravely think of something good to say, but emotional leakage gives away the pain we are feeling. It is difficult to move our counterpart out of the enemy camp, and even more difficult to say something positive about him or her. People might respond with a question: “Something positive?” And they might follow that up with a facial expression meaning “You’ve got to be kidding!” Or, simply, a tearful “I’m not quite ready to go there yet!” Or, one of many possible evasions that move them away from saying something positive.

I realized that this setting provides an excellent teaching moment. In Party-Directed Mediation we utilize pre-caucusing to permit parties to vent and also to role play and coach individuals on more effective ways to say what they wish to say without increasing defensiveness in the other. It is not that we want to change what the parties say to each other, but rather, to open their eyes to the unintended messages individuals give under stress, when they are not psychologically prepared, or when the feelings of antagonism are simply too great. Once we get to the joint session, however, the mediator sits far away from the parties, at a distance of about four meters, and hardly interferes with the conversation between the parties.

There are a number of tools that mediators can use to know if the parties are ready to move on to such a joint session. One of them is asking each contender, in a pre-caucus, for something positive about the other. As a mediator, when a party tells me they have nothing positive to say about another, it is because the price of listening with empathy has not fully been paid yet (see Chapter 2 in Party-Directed Mediation). Another tool, is watching for emotional leakage during role plays.

Resistance about saying something positive about a counterpart then provides a teaching moment, wherein we can point out that we need to remember this moment, and how we are feeling, and have great empathy for the parties in conflict when we are mediating. The idea is not to use compulsion or any type of shaming or forcing individuals into saying something positive. At this point we may indicate to mediators in training that more than one pre-caucus might be needed, especially in those cases where there are deep-seated conflicts of an interpersonal nature.

When a person, then, says she cannot even go to a place where she has to say something positive about another, I can attempt to freeze that moment in time and ask participants to remember this once they get into their mediation practice. To remember to feel empathy and to avoid compulsion; to remember to be patient and to realize that this mediation may take an additional pre-caucus—or more. Such a person who tears up about the very idea of saying something positive about a counterpart needs, above all, additional empathic listening.

Similarly, when a person is surprised that we have asked him or her to say something positive, additional empathic listening may be needed as well. Mediators need to avoid their position of power and influence to compel anther to take this necessary next step. This is another teaching moment. It does not hurt to point each one of these moments as they come up during the workshop in an effort to drive the point through.

Empathic listening is not the only tool, of course. After an individual has been heard with a great amount of empathy for a sufficient period of time, we can begin to softly challenge the parties. For instance, in a workshop where one of the participants could not say anything positive about her brother-in-law, I softly, slowly and tentatively asked: “Your sister … what positive things does she see in her husband?” I wish I had had a video camera. There was a complete transformation. This person went from a sad facial expression to one full of joy. The transformation was almost instant and quite warm. Joy filled her face. She went from not seeing anything of a positive nature to a long explanation of many affirming points about her brother-in-law. In fact, we now listened with empathy as this participant spoke extensively about happy memories from before the conflict. This, again, was an excellent teaching moment about using empathic listening or about the possibility of gently challenging a client. In both cases, the underlying methodology was empathy without compulsion.

In yet a third situation, I have skipped individuals who were not ready to participate and gently have come back to them later on in a workshop, offering a kind listening ear if they were ready to proceed. In some instances, it has required returning to a participant after the seminar has finished.

In summary, I learned that helping mediators learn new tools for solving their own conflicts is full of teaching opportunities, most especially about the importance of empathy and moving forward without compulsion. About learning how and when to transition back to empathic listening if that is what is needed at the moment, even if they think they have progressed past the venting process. To be truly effective mediators, individuals must cultivate that sense or instinct of permitting parties to vent again through empathic listening, and to switch back to such a mode without even having to label that transition for their clients.


Gregorio Billikopf is an emeritus Labor Management Farm Advisor with the University of California and a visiting professor of the Universidad de Chile. His research and teaching efforts have focused on organizational productivity (selection, compensation, performance appraisal, discipline and termination, supervision) and interpersonal relations (interpersonal negotiation, conflict resolution, and mediation). 

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