Mediation and the art of verbal communication
Voice. It’s not the first thing that comes to mind when you consider what makes a successful mediation, is it? Yet a mediator’s verbal communication skills are a key part of engaging parties and helping them move towards settlement.
A mediator will use their voice in a myriad of subtle but powerful ways. They’ll ensure the volume is at a suitable level to convey their authority without parties struggling to hear them, and that the pitch is crisp and clear, which is particularly useful for people for whom English isn’t their mother tongue. They may emphasise certain words to get someone to focus on why those words are particularly important to them or switch from a purposeful tone – where their voice goes down at the end of a sentence – to an upward, questioning tone to invite the party to explore a point further.
Throughout the mediation session, the mediator will vary the pace, tone, volume and cadence of their voice to create a special kind of rhythm and melody. By using their vocal skills, they give parties the time they need to slow down, absorb and consider information while also creating momentum to keep the negotiation going.
Setting the tone
We know that people mirror each other, so when a mediator uses a calm, peace-seeking tone it starts the session off in the right way. This is especially important in the joint open session, if there is one, where it’s not what is said so much as how it’s said. That same mirroring can be used to deflect any potentially explosive situations where parties are raising their voices. Assuming the mediator has significant authority and established trust, if they lower their voice the parties are likely to follow.
A measured pace
Taking time at the beginning of a mediation session can often speed up progress further down the line. To that end, during the early stages of a session the mediator may adopt a slower vocal pace and create voice punctuation, or pauses, to give people more time to process ideas and gain clarity. Mediators are very comfortable with their own vocal pauses before speaking, too. It’s a purposeful action, demonstrating that they’ve thought carefully about what they’re about to say.
Pauses are something to be encouraged during a mediation. People often pause before they say something important. If the mediator doesn’t rush to fill the silence but allows it to happen, what the party says next can be pivotal. Also, a pause may indicate hesitation and uncertainty. A mediator who’s attuned to the tone, cadence, and rhythm of someone’s voice will pick up on this and gently prompt: ‘Tell me a bit more about that.’
Keeping up momentum
Part of a mediator’s role is to motivate parties and bring a sense of optimism to the session. By varying the intonation, speed, and volume a mediator can use their voice to convey energy and enthusiasm, which is particularly important in the early afternoon when sometimes it can look as if a solution is going to be hard to find. Speaking with energy can lift the parties and keep them focused on their goal of reaching a settlement.
A mediator will also pick up on the energy of the parties from their voices. When someone starts speaking in a monologue-like way it can indicate that they’re getting tired, so a mediator may suggest taking a break for a walk or a cup of tea.
All these vocal ‘techniques’ are subliminal. They’re part of an experienced mediator’s subconscious, something they do naturally. It won’t be obvious how a mediator uses their voice to help parties engage in getting to the heart of the matter, or keeps them motivated and optimistic. It’s unlikely parties will realise that during online mediations, when subliminal messages conveyed in the voice are often received more acutely than in person, the mediator has adapted their vocal communication to bring an extra level of care, awareness, and sensitivity to how things are communicated and received.
People may not realise what a mediator is doing, but they know when a mediation works well. If they get to the end of the mediation feeling the experience has been more positive than they had initially expected – well, that’s all down to the skill of the mediator who made it so.
By Rebecca Attree and Amanda Bucklow