It's important to understand something of our multi-cultural environment when mediating. For example, many, but not all, cultures value the tradition of making eye contact with each individual, at their own level. Others, like some Asian cultures, resist making eye contact, particularly where there is an age disparity between those in conversation. Instead, averting the eyes or bowing to show respect may be indicated.
In mediation, it is always valuable to take a moment to reflect upon the particular cultural customs the disputants may hold and then engage in whatever appropriate methods there are to develop rapport. Sometimes this takes a little small talk until you can find some commonality: a love of pets, or travel or fashion, for example. Other times, it takes a deliberate sitting at the level of the disputant (as pictured above, though I'll admit I've never had to stoop quite this low!). Sometimes a genuine gaze into the eyes of the disputant will click and they will instantly feel heard, respected and understood as they reveal the core of their particular truths.
This week, I mediated a sexual harassment claim by a young woman who had immigrated to the United States and worked in lieu of rent at a Hotel. Though she was clear in her mind about the boundaries and limits of what was allowable and not allowed at work, the laws in our State were not quite as explicit. In other words, because of the blurred lines between working and living, her social life became part of her work life and the sexually hostile work environment that she claimed to have endured, was primarily a sexually promiscuous living situation instead. She needed to be heard, and although it was challenging to understand her, given her thick accent and use of foreign expressions which didn't translate easily into English, I listened.
Her employer, a young entrepreneur who owned and operated several of these establishments, had no idea that his managers and staff were quite so involved in one another's personal lives. They were regularly posting photos of one another on Face book, throwing birthday parties for one another and even loaning money to each other. In his case, it was only by leaning out (as opposed to what Sheryl Sandberg advocates for women, "leaning in") that I could truly hear all of the conflict between these two erupt. I figuratively and literally backed away from the conference table and just let each of them tell me their story for hours. It was, after all, their dispute, not mine!
It was only after they were permitted to safely and fully express themselves to someone who had gained their trust by listening intently and looking them in the eye without judgment, that the matter could be finally and fully resolved. The time and effort I put in at the outset to develop a rapport with each of the stakeholders (including the lawyers who represented them) paid off for all involved.