Building Rapport with Your Mediation Clients

As family law mediators, we journey into the “guts and bellies” of people’s lives. How do you get mediation clients to trust you? Who wants to air “dirty laundry” to a stranger? How do you get someone to feel comfortable enough to share what brought on the decline of their relationship?

Essentially, what led them to you?

I have done a fair bit of coaching in mediation courses. I return to this bit of advice for each new cohort of students I am charged with and as a reminder to myself.

Rapport building is one of the most important soft skills in your mediation toolbox.

The success of a mediation sometimes, in large part, depends on the rapport you have built with a client. It starts from your very first interaction with the client, continues throughout the intake/screening process and, if the matter proceeds to mediation, throughout that process as well.

So, what are some of the Rapport Tools I have assembled?

  • Be neutral – In words and body language (someone asked me what the latter meant. I explained that clients observe even your physical reaction(s) to what they say. They can perceive that you are identifying with them (or not) or commiserating a little too much simply by your physical reaction.) So, in addition to your language, be in tune with what your body is saying. There will be zero trust if there is a hint of favoring one client over the other.
  • Listen well: Use eye contact. Verbal and paraverbal responses are uber important. Be comfortable with silence.
  • Show empathy: Everyone wants to feel heard and valued so do acknowledge and validate feelings and concerns.
  • Be patient: Clients should not feel interrupted or rushed. Respect the client’s pace of sharing information.
  • Mind your tone: Be welcoming and calm.
  • Do not cross-examine a client: We are not at trial, (lawyers) 😊 Use open ended questions. Shows you want to hear their concerns.
  • Engage your patience: These are tough times for clients. Emotions deserve space. Allow clients to fully express themselves.
  • Use Reframing techniques: This demonstrates that you have an understanding of what the client has explained to you. It shows you are paying attention and that you are interested in what they are saying.
  • Check-ins: Ask clients if they have questions for you. This approach supports client empowerment and allows clients to seek clarification. It also shows your own transparency in the process.
  • Create a judgment-free zone: Check your biases at the door and if they are simply too much, do refer to another mediator.
  • Do your research: In a society where we have a mosaic of cultures (“a mix of ethnic groups, languages, and cultures that coexist within society”), it behooves us to take a curious approach to learning about cultures so that we can better serve our clients. How comforting it is for a client if they know we have taken the time to learn about their culture so that we do not have foot-in-the-mouth experiences during mediation. Of course, we can’t all take crash courses prior to mediation, so I approach cultural learning within the process, with humility.
  • Be professional and respectful: That goes without saying.