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Establishing Rapport in Mediation

Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation by
Dan Simon

Establishing rapport seems like a nice thing to do, right? I don’t think so.

Ever have someone try to establish rapport with you?  If they’re not good at it, it feels phony and manipulative. If they’re good at it, then it’s more effectively manipulative.

Nonetheless, many mediators see establishing rapport as an important way to start the process.  For many mediators, the purpose of establishing rapport is to make the parties more likely to comply with the mediator’s later nudges.  If the mediator can make you trust her, you’re more likely to go along with her suggestions later.

It’s often a lovely thing for people to have rapport with each other.  Feeling connected to other people is an important, and maybe the most joyful aspect of life.  But shouldn’t it happen naturally?  Shouldn’t it happen because people are being transparent, vulnerable and honest with each other?

In the case of many mediators, it’s not about real connection, it’s about the outcome.  If it’s done well, the mediator is more able to get the parties to do what the mediator believes is best.  It’s not about the parties’ autonomy.  It’s not about party self-determination. It’s about successfully causing parties to behave the way the mediator thinks they should.

And there’s evidence that what’s good for mediator rapport is bad for the party.  Several recent studies have shown that more time spent in caucus is associated with parties’ feeling better about the mediator but also with the parties feeling worse about their situation and the other party.  See the ABA’s meta-study here.

Apparently, in caucus, mediators succeed at making the parties feel good about the mediator, but the more time spent in caucus the worse parties feel about their situation and each other.  These findings support the idea that from the parties’ perspective, self-determination is more important than, and sometimes inconsistent with, rapport with the mediator. The transformative framework, with its focus on moment-to-moment self-determination of the parties, provides a way to keep the mediation focused on the parties’ needs, instead of the mediator’s.

                        author

Dan Simon

Dan is a leader in the field of transformative mediation. He is the author of the chapter on divorce mediation in the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation's ("ISCT") TRANSFORMATIVE MEDIATION SOURCEBOOK. He is a Past Chair of the Minnesota State Bar Association's Alternative Dispute Resolution Section. He served… MORE >

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