by Therese Tiffany Ang
A meeting over the direction of a startup is going badly. A team member refuses to buy into the vision that the management has crafted, and it seems that the dispute will not be resolved. Just then, the CEO steps in. In a shift that seems almost magical, the member comes around and fully supports the new vision. I ask the CEO what he did, and he replies, “It’s something I read about in a book by an FBI hostage negotiator.” 1
Many of us have struggled to deal with difficult or emotional parties when trying to resolve disputes. When I read the above excerpt for the first time, it struck me that there was something that could be learnt from how crisis negotiators deal with their parties in high-stress situations. Crisis negotiations typically involve situations where parties are driven by heightened negative emotions (like anger and fear) at the detriment of rational thinking. Rather than aiming to separate people from their emotions, crisis negotiators place an emphasis on using skills that not only elicit the verbalisation of interests, but that manage and mould parties’ emotions in order to guide them towards collaborative problem-solving behaviour. Using this approach, many peaceful resolutions have been reached with hostage-takers, barricaded subjects and with those involved in suicide attempts.
This series of blog posts aims to see how crisis negotiation skills can be applied in the practice of mediation, and more specifically, how such skills can be applied to help mediators better deal with emotional or difficult parties in mediation.
As in the traditional interest-based approach, crisis negotiators typically begin by identifying a party’s interests by building rapport and trust. This first entry focuses on one commonly used technique – active listening.
What is Active Listening?
Active listening is listening and responding to a person’s feelings in a manner that shows genuine concern and empathy. In mediation, this skill is helpful in two ways:
(1) Informative: The mediator can collect vital information about the party’s interests and strategies.
(2) Affective: The mediator’s demonstration of empathy helps to defuse any negative emotions the party might have. It also builds rapport and trust so that the mediator can subsequently influence a collaborative behavioural change in that party.
Micro-skills Used in Active Listening
In order to optimally benefit from the informative and affective effects of active listening, negotiators use a large variety of micro-skills. We will explore five of them in this entry.
(1) Open-ended questions/statements
Open-ended questions and statements can be used to clarify information and to help mediators demonstrate to the parties that attention is being paid to them and their feelings.
A good open-ended statement is non-judgmental and shows interest in the party’s story. Questions like, “Sounds like you had a rough time. Can you tell me your side of the story?” are more likely to build rapport between the mediator and the party so that the former can gain more information about the latter’s interests and concerns, which are crucial for facilitating collaborative problem-solving. In contrast, factual questions like, “Did you really supply a defective good?”, typically diminish rapport significantly and tend to only result in unhelpful “yes/no” answers.
(2) Effective pauses
Silence can be extremely helpful if used strategically. For instance, if used after an open-ended question, an effective pause allows the party to collect his thoughts and encourage sharing. As crisis negotiators have found, this is particularly important when parties are overwhelmed with emotions. This is because people in such circumstances tend to have more to say, but need a longer time to process their thoughts.
Effective pauses can also be used after an emotional outburst to defuse heightened feelings of anger, hurt and frustration. When utilised strategically, such pauses can sometimes be more helpful than direct intervention because they give parties the space to ventilate their emotions. Eventually, like a swamp being cleared out, even the most emotional people can be calmed down.
(3) Minimal encouragers
Brief, well-timed encouragers like “and” and “yes” indicate that the mediator is paying full attention to the party and wants to know more. They help create room for explanation without forcing parties to close-up to defend their position.
Mirroring is a sign that people are in sync and developing the kind of rapport that leads to trust. Crisis negotiators focus on mirroring the last few words said by party. This has proven to be effective in facilitating bonding and in getting parties to keep sharing information, because it triggers their instinct to sustain the process of connecting by elaborating on what they just said.
While mirroring is effective, using it too often may give a party the impression that the mediator is merely parroting his concerns. To prevent this, another technique that mediators can use is paraphrasing, whereby the mediator uses his own words to repeat what the party said.
Paraphrasing goes one step further from showing that one is listening – it demonstrates that an active effort is being made to understand and connect.
This brings us to the end of Part 1 of the series. I trust that it has given you some food for thought. In Part 2, I will further look at two other essential micro-skills of active listening – emotional labelling and summarising.
Therese is a graduate student from the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Law. During her time as an undergraduate, she studied both Mediation and Negotiation as elective modules and trained youth in peer mediation at the Peacemakers Conference.
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