Matching, Pacing and Leading
In response to a question about what are the three most important skills for a mediator, an accurate answer might well be: "Rapport, Rapport, Rapport." Simply stated, the mediator is not going anywhere with the participants until they feel heard and the mediator has established an effective personal working relationship with each participant. If you are not making progress in mediation, ask yourself if you are in rapport with all participants. If not, you will want to consider what you can do to reestablish rapport.
Matching is the process of establishing a physically and substantively responsive relationship with mediation participants. Physically, the mediator wants to reflect about 50% of each party's physicality. This can be challenging as it is common for parties to be in very different physical postures. The mediator does well to strike some physical positioning, in terms of leg position, hands, arms, back, head, etc., so that each mediating party feels comfortable. While a somewhat conscious effort for the mediator, all of this must be under the radar of the parties. If parties become aware that you as mediator are trying to physically match them, then the matching will become mockery and highly unproductive, if not destroy the mediation effort.
Pacing is the process of graceful mirroring and moving in response to the mediating parties. As if matching (or cross matching) two or more mediating parties was not difficult enough, mediating parties have the nerve to actually move in mediation! And it is critical that the mediator not get left behind. Note that the mediator does not want to do a "Harpo Marx" where the mediator moves in synchrony with each mediating party. This would too quickly be detected by the parties and create highly undesirable results. Rather, the mediator wants to "check in" every couple of minutes with the situation to be sure that they have not fallen out of physical rapport with the parties. If so, the mediator can gracefully adjust physical posture to better reflect a physical mid-point between the parties, using inflection or a gesture to disguise the purposeful movement.
The mediator may also want to consider adjusting their posture so as to more strongly reflect (and support) the non-speaking party. The unconscious message being sent is that, "Hey, I know that you are there and want you to feel supported." When that party them comes to speak, the mediator may just happen to fall into a physical position more supportive of the new non-speaking party.
Leading naturally follows from effective matching and pacing. There comes an unconscious point in the mediator's facilitative relationship with the parties where sufficient rapport has been developed so that the parties will automatically and unconsciously follow the mediator's physical lead. This lead might be a lean forward to a more involved physical position (often using "props" like ground rules or a provision for consideration) or it may be a turn to the flip chart. You may want to think of leading as the "yawning phenomenon." My guess is that you are familiar with situations where you are out with family or friends and one person in the group yawns. An unconscious signal is sent to the others that it is alright for them to also be in touch with their tiredness and, low and behold, a stream of yawns follows. You might also think of your response in a group when one person cleans between their teeth with a finger nail how tempted you are to do the same (or at least to search between your teeth with your tongue).
Physical Rapport as a Metaphor for Substantive Rapport
The techniques of matching, pacing and leading that we have been discussing are both valuable in their own right and also, in a way, metaphors for how we as mediators can most effectively work with parties with regard to their perceptions, belief systems and values, and the substance of their dispute. It is only when a participant senses that you fully understand them -- which is the result of effective reflective listening (matching) and probing for additional understanding (pacing) -- that you as mediator receive permission from that party to take the lead in helping them to think about their situation and possible solutions in a new way. There is a saying that "resistance is a sign of insufficient pacing." If you find that one or more mediating parties are simply not following your suggested considerations, the odds are that at least one party experiences that you have not fully absorbed and reflected back what they are trying to communicate. Parties in mediation have typically been rehearsing their "performance" for weeks. They are not going anywhere with you as mediator until they are fully convinced that you genuinely and fully understand where they are coming from, what they have experienced and what they are trying to say. It is only at this point, when you as mediator are able to summarize where they are at perhaps even better than they have ever been able to, that you as mediator will be given unconscious permission to "take the lead" in helping that party to move on to consider their next step
Language to Use to Match, Pace and Lead
"Appreciating that you . . . , I wonder whether . . .?"
"Respecting that you feel that way, I am curious as to whether you also . . ?"
"Understanding how strongly you feel about this issue, is it also true that . . . ?"
In each case, you instantly build rapport by entering the other participant's world and acknowledging his or her state of being and communications (rather than ignoring them with words like "but" or "however"). You create a bonding frame of agreement and open the door to redirecting the consideration without resistance.
Additional Variables for Building Rapport
There are many additional ways to support your having an effective working relationship with each participant. Many are listed below. Perhaps the greatest challenge is to develop rapport with each individual party in a way that does not threaten your rapport with the other party. The mediator constantly needs to balance the conscious and unconscious attention being paid to each participant so that they each feel honored and heard and ready to work toward solution. Consider the following additional opportunities for building rapport.
Matching key phrases and words
Matching representational systems
Style/formality of clothing
Body position (whole body or part body)
Tonality and intonation of sentences and phrases
Dealing With Belief Systems and Resistance
Simply put, mediation is not the place to try to change participants' belief systems and values. As if assisting contentious parties to reach agreement were not enough of a challenge, it is suggested that it is pure folly for the mediator to think that they can change a lifetime of integrated learning in a very limited number of hours. What is also true is that, If the parties have not been able to change each other's perception of reality prior to the mediation, it is unlikely that they will be able to change each other's beliefs and values in the mediation.