At the outset of a mediation, the disputants have all the background, the history, and the inside knowledge about the dispute. Mediators must play “catch-up.” They must get information and insight into the nature of the dispute and the parties involved. This is necessary to provide the help required to achieve a resolution. Much of the key information must be developed during the mediation process. This discovery requires good communication skills.
It can be quite a challenge to collect all this information in the midst of the mediation. We want to use the best communication tools available to develop an accurate and unbiased understanding of the parties and their interests. We want to leverage these tools to help us move the process towards a desired end: a durable agreement.
This has been a challenge for me since the time I was an intelligence officer in the Army. As an investigator, trainer, counselor, and now mediator, I have always wanted to leverage effective communication skills. I saw this as a vital part of increasing my understanding in every interaction. I have realized the more I understand about those with whom I interact, the better able I am to achieve my goal for the interaction.
I wanted a way to help me to leverage the best communication tools in all my interactions. So, I adapted the model used to produce intelligence to guide my interactions. I then refined the model to integrate other communication best practices. Basically, I produce intelligence for myself. I use this intelligence to move communication towards achieving the goal for every interaction.
Below is the model I use to guide my interactions with others. It starts with understanding the context of the interaction. What do we know about the dispute and the parties involved? From context, we want to make sure we have identified a goal. In the case of mediation, that is an agreement. With a goal in place, we can select specific interim objectives that will help us achieve that goal. These may include objectives like identifying the interests behind each party’s position. This part of the model we call the guideline.
The other two parts of the model are what drives the interaction along the guideline to our desired goal. In the diagram, they are depicted as cogwheels that are connected at the guideline. These two cogwheels represent what we say and do and what we think and feel.
What we say and do represents the communication skills we know and apply to our communication. These include such things as asking good questions, encouraging creative brainstorming, and empathically reframing other’s statements. Such skills are important in moving the mediation process along the guideline. The guideline to interim objectives and ultimately our goal of a durable agreement.
We have a lot of options to select from when we are deciding what to say and do. The question becomes how do we decide from among these options. What informs our decision? Our goal and objectives will help guide this selection. Our own perceived competence will also guide this decision. We would generally select skills we are good at. The parties involved in the mediation should also guide what we say and do. This is where the other cogwheel in the model, think and feel, comes into play.
The think and feel part of the model breaks down the mental processes we use into four simple steps. These steps help us integrate more best practices into our communication with others. These four steps are listen, think, feel, and plan.
The cogwheel that represents the think and feel part of the model is the larger of the two cogwheels. This is to emphasize these steps. They are vital to ensuring what we say and do is informed by accurate understanding. We are trying to really understand what the other parties are saying and doing.
Many communication best practices can be integrated into the think and feel component. The SIER approach to active listen follows a similar progression as the think and feel steps. Like the intelligence model it is based on, there is a connection with critical thinking. These steps also support the use of communication accommodation. Communication accommodation can be an important aspect of empathic listening and reframing. In addition, these steps can help avoid cognitive biases that impact understanding. Such biases include primacy effect and belief perseverance. This is just a sample of the many skills that can be integrated into these steps.
With all that can be integrated into the think and feel component, this aspect of the model can become quite complex. For our purposes in this article, four basic questions provide a basic summary of the four steps associated with think and feel. These are:
· LISTEN—What did the person say verbally and non-verbally? (Focused listening.)
· THINK—What could this information mean? (Development of multiple competing hypotheses.)
· FEEL—What does this information mean in the context of other person? (Integration of your understanding into the other person’s world.)
· PLAN–What will I say or do next, based on my understanding of this information? (Linking thinking and feeling with saying and doing.)
This approach to interpersonal communication has helped improve my understanding of others. It has also helped the hundreds of students I have shared it with. We are better able to achieve the goals we set for all our interactions. Perhaps it can be a tool you can add to your mediator tool box. It may help you achieve better understanding of your clients and their interests. Better understanding may help you help them achieve successful resolution of their conflicts.
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