[Strategy] How to Mediate – Establish Rapport with Disputants

  • The fact is, they both might like the conflict more that they want to get to resolution.
  • The fact is, they both might be feeling alternatively powerful and powerless in the conflict and may not want to break out of that cycle.
  • The fact is, they both might like the relationship that they have built with each other, over time around the conflict.
  • The fact is, they may not see resolution as a way to “win” and instead are focused on just maintaining forward motion in the conflict.
  • The fact is, the conflict may have begun around a material issue, but has now transformed into a conflict around values, using the language of principles, to describe positions.
  • The fact is, they may not understand how resolution as a process works, and may mistrust the process and the person advocating for it.
  • The fact is, they may not be exhausted enough yet to get to resolution—or to try resolving the conflict—and may have enough energy to continue the conflict, but not enough energy to expend on resolving the conflict.
  • The fact is, they may be surrounded by other players, third party individuals and others who are encouraging them, behind the scenes and away from the negotiation table, to continue the conflict.
  • The fact is, they may just not be “ready” for resolution.

When tasked with mediating a conflict, whether between two parties at work, or between two parties at home, many people don’t take into consideration the above list (not exhaustive) of factors that influence the lack of ability by disputants to “get to the table.” Instead, many non-professional mediators spend an inordinate amount of time convincing the conflicting parties that the mediation process is a good idea, rather than doing the other things with each of the parties that allow space for mediation as an option, to grow.

Establishing rapport with parties in conflict involves planning strategically and behaving tactically in three areas:

Building the relationship with both parties—The relationship is everything. If there is a pre-established relationship (for instance, between neighbors, family members, or even work colleagues) the relationship building goes faster, but if there’s no relationship, then empathy, active listening and engaging emotionally are a good beginning.

Establishing trust and credibility—Remember, there’s not a skills problem to resolving conflict, there’s a trust problem. Parties in conflict, for all of the reasons listed above and a laundry list more, trust each other collectively in a conflict scenario, because the other party seems predictable, more than they trust a third party individually. This seems wrong and counterintuitive, but think of how many conflicts you’ve let drag on endlessly, without resolution, and were offered the services of a third party.

Understanding each party, but not being driven by either of them—This last piece is the province of the professional mediator, but many people—from supervisors to pastors to therapists—are called to render a neutral decision on conflict questions, with little pomp and circumstance. The ability to be neutral may be held in suspicion by some parties, but third parties who can behave neutrally through nonverbal and other forms of communication, stand a better chance of building rapport with both parties before an option for resolution is even offered.

The path to resolution is carved through rapport, built on relationship,  cemented through trust and credibility, and “locked-in” through understanding. Without those three areas, all the factors for not getting to table may render more weight with each party than the process of resolution ever will.

-Peace Be With You All-

Jesan Sorrells, MA
Principal Conflict Engagement Consultant
Human Services Consulting and Training (HSCT)
Email HSCT: jsorrells@hsconsultingandtraining.com
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