(By Hayley Glaholt) In a recent course I took at Riverdale Mediation (“Introduction to ADR”), the significance of effective and appropriate communication in family mediation became clear. Throughout the course our three instructors (Hilary Linton, Christine Kim and Elizabeth Hyde) highlighted numerous areas in which successful family mediation relied on an adept understanding of communication styles and strategies. For this post I have identified five key areas that are helpful for family mediators (and mediators more broadly) to keep in mind during each stage of a mediation.
Who are you, and where do you come from?
The ways in which we communicate (or fail to communicate!) are shaped heavily by our surroundings. Both nature and nurture influence what we want to say, and how we want to say it.
As Christine Kim discussed during our course (and has written about in this blog), our own cultural heritage can both help us and hinder us in family mediation. Body language, phrasing, and temporal aspects of communication are all influenced by our cultural milieu—and what may seem natural and appropriate to one person could be downright offensive to another. In this regard, cultural literacy/cultural competence is a mandatory skill to develop.
On the first day of “Intro to ADR,” Christine and Elizabeth recommended that each participant take a Myers-Briggs test to figure out our personality type. After all, knowledge is power! So I trotted off to my computer and took one online. It turns out that I am an “INFJ” (Introverted-Intuitive-Feeling-Judging). How might this impact my communication style? Thanks to our course materials and some online research, I now know that: I can be frustrated with highly interactive and verbal processes (I am better with written communication), I tend to skip from topic to topic, I tend to see lively expressions of emotion/perspective as combative, and I have difficulty concluding and making decisions. After panicking briefly (how good of a family mediator could I possibly be with all of these problems?!), I realized that—again—knowledge is power! Being aware of my strengths and weaknesses allows me to address them in ways that will benefit both my clients and myself.
As seasoned mediators already know, being a family mediator is not the same as being a family therapist, lawyer, or friend. Each of us comes from a particular professional background—one that has established ways of “appropriately” getting information across. My background in academia has taught me a “correct” way of talking to and engaging with others in professional settings. Each of us will have to un-learn and adapt to new, useful ways of communicating in order to put our clients’ needs first, and to fulfil the role of mediator well.
The subtleties of communication
Communication is not just about words. It is about body language, interpersonal exchange, and all that happens when words are not spoken.
Though Riverdale offers a course dedicated to understanding and identifying power imbalances in relationships, our course also addressed this issue quite a bit. Mediators must be highly tuned to how individuals intimidate, threaten, and control each other—often without a single word being spoken. Nonverbal communication can often be more powerful than verbal, and if you miss the threatening glance that a husband gives his wife, or the tapping fingers on the table that a wife intends her partner to hear—you are missing information that is vital to a safe and productive mediation.
Each of our instructors highlighted the importance of silence during a family mediation. Meditators themselves must stop talking at times, in order for their clients to process information and come up with their own solutions. Being comfortable with silence, and knowing when to stop talking and shift towards active listening, allows clients to feel empowered and heard. It opens up space for clients’ self-determination in the mediation process.
During this three day course, Hilary Linton repeatedly drew our attention to one portion of the Hippocratic Oath: “First and foremost, do no harm” (Primum non nocere). Family mediators seek to help families reduce stress, violence, and harm in their own relationships. Mediators, by definition, facilitate non-violent communication between parties. In order to truly “do no harm,” we must understand communication in all of its facets and continue to improve ourselves regarding this delicate art.