The A-Z of Mediation: Empathy

Scott McIver Blog

Communication is the main driving force of mediation. And, as a lot of it goes through the mediator, the importance of EMPATHY must not be understated.

Empathy is a part of active listening, a set of skills that allows us to communicate that what is being said has been heard and understood. It also shows interest and concern in the person’s situation.

To put it into context, the mediator must be able to listen to each individual’s story and be able to understand their feelings about it. They should be able to put themselves into the participant’s shoes, as well as seeing things from their perspective.

However, empathy is not to be confused with sympathy. Whilst they are somewhat similar, sympathy involves identifying with the other person and taking their side because of it. This is exactly the opposite of what we want, with impartiality playing such a huge part in the mediation process. After all, the mediator is not there to take sides.

So how can we show empathy?

– Give full undivided attention to the participant, including eye contact, body positioning and body language.

Listen carefully to everything being said, noting key words and phrases.

Respond encouragingly to progress – examples include nodding and vocal recognition.

And why do we show empathy?

Build trust and rapport – Following the above steps can make the participant feel more comfortable, secure, and confident in the mediator’s abilities. This may then encourage them to open up further (see last week’s ‘Disclosure’ article). Through having more available information, we can then clarify facts, meanings, and feelings, and identify key issues and interests.

Reduces stress – Conflict is stressful enough as it is, without the introduction of an irregular process like mediation. By establishing a trusted connection with the participant, the mediator acts as a grounding in the room and takes away some of the intense emotion that is stirred up.

More chance of success – When people are calmer and not driven by emotion, they are more likely to be able to see the bigger picture. After seeing things from both sides, they may feel inclined to engage more actively in finding a method of resolution.

Of course, empathy is not exclusive to just mediation. It is a life-skill that is considered useful both personally and professionally, featuring heavily in many different types of job roles.

However, when you’re dealing with people’s personal beliefs, opinions, and emotions as much as mediators are, there are few skills that are quite as crucial.

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