I spotted Malcolm Gladwell’s recent bestseller, ‘Outliers’ at a bookstore at JFK just after April’s ABA Conference in New York and I suspect I’ve joined a group of travellers that have happened upon it in the same way. It grabbed my attention as I browsed, on the lookout for a good read on a long journey, and it promised to tell ‘The Story of Success’.
I recommend it. It’s the kind of book that has a chapter or two, or a subject or two, that grab you and stay with you – ask anyone who’s read it “what part spoke to you the most?” For me, it was two aspects which related to mediation practice.
First, Gladwell suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something, therefore a champion chess player, a concert pianist, will have dedicated 10,000 plus hours to reach their level of expertise, and most likely an Olympic athlete and an expert mediator will have done the same. That’s a lot of practice, mediators! And it resonates with the view that mediators should think of themselves as having the “beginner’s mindset” and being in a “permanent state of learning”.
Second, Gladwell’s examples of mitigated language and miscommunications on the flight deck and how this featured as a contributor to airline disasters in the 1980s and 1990s was compelling reading for a mediator. He described 6 levels of responses that people utilise in communication and ordered them from zero-mitigation (the command) to the most mitigated statement of all (the hint). In brief, they are:
1. Command (a direct and implicit instruction is given)
2. Obligation (a view or an opinion about an action is expressed)
3. Suggestion (the speaker suggests that others join in the action, leaving room to disagree)
4. Query (the question is asked and the listener can decide the action)
5. Preference (the speaker lets the audience know what they would like, without making it clear that they have to follow through)
6. Hint (the most mitigated communication of all – you can understand it if you can decode it!)
When I read this, I thought of those situations in mediation when one party uses the polite and culturally-comfortable preference or hint and another is immediately frustrated because their personal mode of communication is ‘command and control’. The commanding party expects the listener to receive the communication as it’s stated and act on it. The hinting party expects the receiver of the information to decode the meaning (possibly a longer process) and then act on what they perceive the meaning to be. A polite way of expressing your needs? Well, yes… if the parties in the room understand your intention!
I unintentionally communicated this at home for 3 years and realised I could have used Malcolm Gladwell’s book some time ago, and been more successful. I badly wanted a bass guitar for Christmas and as Christmas rolled by twice with nothing under the tree in a long case I wondered why my family had ignored my requests. I let them know my wish to learn the bass (5 – preference) and mused that it would be great to learn the bass sometime (6 – hint) until last Christmas when my son, armed with a shiny red guitar said: “Mum, you have to stop hinting and just come straight out with it! Say what you mean!” Oops, he was looking for the mode of communication that he responds to, no.1 – the command, and was frustrated by my indirect approach.
Understanding the cultural barriers which prevent (or promote) certain types of communication has implications for people who work in teams too. Outliers lives up to the expectations on its cover, and sets out a series of stories and case studies about why and how people have achieved expertise and success.
Jeff Thompson, Ph.D., is a professor at Lipscomb University, researcher, mediator, and trainer. He is also involved in crisis and hostage negotiation as well as a law enforcement detective. His research includes law enforcement crisis and hostage negotiation in terrorist incidents. He received his doctorate from Griffith University Law School having researched the impact nonverbal communication has in conflict situations with respect to developing rapport, building trust, and displaying professionalism.
Dr. Thompson has presented and trained on the topic of conflict, mediation, (crisis and hostage) negotiation, communication and nonverbal communication internationally for a variety of audiences including police personnel, government officials, judges, attorneys, physicians, sales people, business professionals, and both graduate and undergraduate students. He has also been published in numerous professional and academic publications.
He is the co-chair of ACR's national Crisis Negotiation Section, and he is an ad-hoc reviewer for multiple academic journals. He received his MS in Negotiation and Dispute Resolution from the Werner Institute, Creighton University School of Law.
(All posts by Jeff Thompson represent his personal reflections and opinions and not that of any organization.)