Mediator Skills

                      Image from:  Nick Youngson

                      Image from: Nick Youngson



Ever wonder what it takes to be a mediator? Here are a few qualities and techniques you will find in most mediators.


Holding two (or more!) realities:  This skill is best understood by breaking it into three parts.

  • The first is a capacity to understand the reality of all parties from their perspectives.
  • The second is the ability to reflect to each party this understanding of their and others' realities.
  • Particularly skilled mediators employ a third ability to help parties develop a new lens through which to view their dispute which creates opportunities for movement and resolution. Composite skills enable a mediator to "hold two realities" include: active listening, empathy (the ability to show parties that you understand their interests and concerns - through sympathetic explorations of issues, body language, repeating back, etc.) and reframing the problem.

Investigation:  To understand the issues, "facts" of a case and the parties' positions, a mediator must do intensive investigation. This exploration, usually a series of questions posed in joint and private meetings, peels away the layers of the dispute and helps identify which information, interests and feelings are pertinent to settling the case. A mediator assesses which lines of investigation are productive and tests each parties' range of concession or compromise. These explorations enable the mediator to develop a sense of what settlements are possible.

Managing the interaction: At any given moment, the interaction between parties is complex. This complexity multiplies, of course, with the number of parties involved. In order to keep the session focused and productive, the mediator must also act as the facilitator. This includes:

  • Establishing ground rules for communication (no interrupting, etc.)
  • Encouraging active listening
  • Anticipating and dealing with strong emotion
  • Choosing when and with whom to meet in private caucus
  • Managing relationships when parties are accompanied by a representative

Invention/Problem solving:  Invention and problem solving are ways to break an impasse and increase cooperation. A mediator can be instrumental in inventing options in two ways:

  • The mediator can create an atmosphere (using empathy, investigation and persuasion) that encourages the parties to invent their own solutions.
  • The mediator can offer ideas or proposals that the parties may not be recognizing. In either case, the mediator and parties are likely to use techniques such as fractioning (generating options and packaging.)

It is usually wise for a mediator to wait until s/he has a firm grasp of the dispute and has earned trust before suggesting settlement solutions, and also is confident that the parties have the capacity to reject those that are unacceptable.

Persuasion:  Mediators must have well developed powers of persuasion - the ability to convey impressions or ideas that alter another's perception of a situation or proposal - and the good judgement to know when to use them. Often mediators use increasingly persuasive approaches as a case progresses, for example when encouraging a party to realistically assess his/her alternative to no agreement or when presenting packages to test the reasonableness of both sides' proposals.

Realistic assessment of alternatives:  Parties in a dispute have often not thought out clearly what will happen if they do not settle the case.  The mediator will usually help parties sort out these alternatives to settlement, estimating with as much clarity as possible the costs and benefits of non-settlement.

Generating options:  Parties in a dispute frequently have tunnel vision about possible settlements: they know the right answer. The mediator will usually help the parties explore different components of settlement, perhaps helping them "expand the pie" to include items for negotiation that parties had previously ignored.

Reformulating or reframing the problem:  Parties in a dispute usually define "the problem" as based on the fault of the other party. When a party sees the problem solely in terms of the other side's fault, however, it is difficult for the party to then be flexible in seeking agreement. Fortunately, there are often many accurate definitions of "the problem", and the mediator will usually help the parties seek definitions with which they are comfortable and which are not based on blaming the other party.

Managing anger:  In a negotiation each side ordinarily wants more than it can get. This can lead to frustration which can lead to anger. Sometimes the anger is manifest, sometimes buried. The mediator will usually help the parties deal with the anger so that it does not interfere with their ability to reach an agreement.

Distributing the pie:  Most negotiations involve, in greater or lesser measure, the process of dividing up a set of resources. With rare exception, parties want what they perceive to be a "fair" portion in that division.

Strategic direction:  Overlaying all her/his tasks, the mediator must develop and pursue a direction that helps the parties move toward agreement. It is important to distinguish relevant information from clutter, identify each party's essential requirements of agreement, "coach" the parties negotiation process, and recognize parties' relative flexibility.

What other essential skills do you think a mediator needs to be successful?