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Finding Common Ground – The Untold Story (Free The Senses, Free The Party)

August, 2010

Everyone has a story. Maya Angelou reminds us there is no greater burden than carrying an untold story. An untold story contains underlying issues and feelings that encroach on emotions and create internal conflict. Conflict, within a communication landscape, is thought of as communicated contradiction and can block thoughts and dialogue. As the untold story unfolds, conflict repercussions interfere with sensory information processing (information gathered through senses) and compromises sensory integrity. Simply put, the repercussions of an untold story change the five sense’s ability to accurately process simultaneous information internally signaled from the body and externally signaled from the environment.

As a mediator you may be asking yourself why is this information relevant to me or the process of mediation? This question is the primary focus of this article which is to help practitioners understand the importance of finding common ground for parties’ processing differences as well as their dispute differences. By creating a mediation framework that is more inclusive and user friendly, a practitioner minimizes party frustration, maximizes party engagement opportunities, and empowers communication. This article demonstrates how a party’s sensory processing ability can be compromised by a mediator’s chosen framework to conduct the mediation.

Since, as practitioners, you have a working knowledge of mediation frameworks we will begin by exploring processing relating to the brain and our senses. Just like computers, people have a central processing unit(s) referred to in the computer world as CPU’s. In the field of Speech/Language Pathology, in the areas of psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics, that unit is referred to as CAP or Central Auditory Processing. Central auditory processing refers to the ear and brain relationship and how the brain uses the acoustic or auditory information it is given. Auditory information processing within the language processing framework refers to an ability to infer meaning from an acoustic signal. The visual processing unit is located in the Central Nervous System (CNS). Of interest to mediators is that most mediators choose to, primarily, distribute information through parties’ auditory channels when less than thirty percent (30%) of the general population use that sensory modality for primary sensory information processing. So, in mediation, how are approximately seventy percent (70%) of the general population, who do not use auditory channels for primary sensory information processing, going to select and sort visual or other sensory prompts when the mediator’s dialogue is structured to be processed through the ears?

Multi-Sensory versus Uni-Sensory Mediation Process Approach:

A mediation process using one sense to deliver information is called uni-sensory or one dimensional. A process approach that provides for more than one sense to gather information is called multi-sensory or multidimensional. A multi-sensory approach increases speaker and listener fairness and minimizes unnecessary frustrations. Building this sensory rich environment with multi-sensory prompts makes the information delivery more inclusive and listener friendly. Therefore, it is important to build a mediation environment that provides equitable opportunities for parties to access incoming information. It also maximizes accessibility for communication competence so more parties can tell their story.

An inclusive process minimizes defensive behavior and promotes more cooperative, and less competitive, positioning because parties who feel excluded do not bring their most cooperative or communicative selves to the table. Whether overt or covert, that behavior further interrupts or disrupts communication, the emergence of a positive mediation relationship and can stall or implode favorable outcomes. Building a sensory rich process increases the likelihood of greater understanding and resolution because evoked communication is more effective than provoked communication.

One of the first things we need to understand when designing a more inclusive mediation framework is why, in the past, we have not. A mediator or practitioner is given considerable discretion when designing a mediation framework. Much of our mediation coursework emphasized a framework format designed in linear stages. The primary emphasis was to expedite the route to resolution of disputes with minimal consideration given to mediator/speaker/listener needs. We structure the opening statement, ground rules format and confidentiality constraints with skill. Often overlooked in that format are the human processing factors and cause and effect relationships that exist between how parties process, gather and distribute information and how those factors are influenced by the structure of the mediation framework. Most mediators conventionally structure the mediation process to deliver information through uni-sensory auditory channels when less than thirty percent (30%) of the general population are, predominantly, auditory sensory (ear) processors.

In fairness, many mediators may be unaware of the auditory channel stumbling block for about seventy percent (70%) of mediation parties who are trying to use their visual or other than auditory sensory modalities to access and track information. This population needs our help to change the information imbalance. Mediators can be change agents and mediation, itself, should be a process for change. The cultivation of a flexible, more inclusive, mediation structure incorporating party learning style differences changes the relationship between conventional mediation information delivery and parties’ accessibility of information they otherwise would struggle to obtain.

Understanding Processing Preferences and Differences:

To understand parameters, as well as barriers of language processing, we need a clear understanding of the facts about sensory neurolinguistic processing, in general, and specifically, how a mediation process structured to deliver information through auditory channels creates an unintentional advantage for auditory processing parties. While reading the following information about neurolinguistic processing, please put aside your knowledge about Neurolinguistic Programming(NLP). While similar in visual appearance, they are not the same. Processing precedes programming. Programming addresses a belief there is a need to intervene, accommodate or modify processing.

Processing preferences or styles guide the way people internally represent experiences, recall information and select words. In my homage to character Detective Jack Webb’s (Dragnet) fact pattern, here are the facts…just the facts:

FACT: Ears hear and organize incoming information for the brain to interpret.

FACT: Each ear processes incoming sound differently although both convert mechanical sound into electrical information for the brain.

FACT: Eyes see and look for visual representations of information and have strong image-processing abilities. (Reading text is an auditory, not a visual, learning activity.)

FACT: Bodies vibrate to physical movement and expression like body language or creative interpretive drama or dance. The need for mobility can range from being stationary with finger tapping to continuous movement.

FACT: People process incoming auditory, visual and kinesthetic/tactile information on a continuum.

FACT: Less than 30% of the general population use auditory channels as their primary sensory modality to process incoming information. Auditory processors seek explanations with words.

FACT: More than 65% of the general population use visual channels as their primary sensory modality to process incoming information. Visual processors seek visual representation explanations.

FACT: Less than 5% of the general population use Kinesthetic/Haptic/Tactile channels as their primary sensory modality to process incoming information through movement and action. As a group they are the least interested in linguistic explanations.

FACT: A mediation process using one sense to deliver information is called uni-sensory. A process approach that provides for more than one sense to gather information is called multi-sensory.

FACT: A conventional uni-sensory structured mediation process primarily delivers information linguistically favoring parties who use auditory channels to process incoming information.

FACT: An experienced conventional mediator may prevent built-in bias from influencing parties but a conventional uni-sensory mediation process cannot.

FACT: By implementing an approach that is multi-sensory the mediator can increase speaker and listener fairness.

Free the Senses:

For most parties, sensory integration (coordinating perceived information taken in through more than one sense) is efficiently accomplished without conscious thought. For language processing, sensory information for the majority of the general population is transmitted to the left brain hemisphere which assigns meaning to sensory experiences and people behave or respond accordingly. This lateralization of information occurs with the idea that each of two brain hemispheres execute different functions. These hemispheres are separated by nerve fiber bundles, acting as a go-between, and carrying information from both hemispheres for processing into forms that start speech and language.

Language processing is, for the most part, not a bilateral processing brain function. Functions to process the sensory information are separately conducted in the appropriate hemisphere. Afterwords, the decoded and encoded information is lateralized to the opposite brain hemisphere. After each division of labor function is processed in the appropriate brain hemisphere, the combined information is recoded and transmitted to jump start or activate speech and language which results from the relationship between the brain and mouth.

Current research is demonstrating that people with more superior intellect are more likely to have more involved brain hemisphere functioning from both hemispheres than those of average intelligence. NLP research is categorized in this research base. As a result, it could be inferred that generalizing NLP applicability for mediation party needs would be inadvisable. More advisable would be combining resources from Howard Gardner on Multiple Intelligences, Daniel Goleman on Emotional Intelligence and NLP characteristics of individual processing differences to enhance a mediator’s understanding when planning for party profile needs to empower speaker and listener communication.

Another perspective on language processing is that vocabulary word is to picture puzzle as word intonation is to the puzzle’s border. Vocabulary word is a function of the left brain hemisphere and word intonation is a function of the right hemisphere. A great example of how brain hemispheres lateralize to comprise communication competence was used to explain the relationship between songwriters Richard Rogers, composer and Oscar Hammerstein, lyricist. Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein summarized her husband’s role and team member contribution to an inquiring Johnny Carson saying…”think of their contributions this way. . .without my husband, the song ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ would just be tones known as la, la, la, la, la, la.”

Free the Party to Tell Their Story:

Communication is an intricate process. At points during my thirty year career in public education, before becoming a mediator, I developed communication intervention strategies for adults and children as a speech/language pathologist. I deeply value those experiences requiring identification of communication barriers and conditions that impede, or potentially prevent, people from expressing what they mean. Without that training I may not have realized the implications of a uni-sensory mediation information delivery process primarily structured through the sense of hearing.

Developing communication intervention strategies as a speech/language pathologist was a natural segue to developing communication intervention strategies as a mediator. Additionally, my background underscored the significance of using multi-sensory information delivery components in the mediation framework to empower a party’s language experience. The value of a party’s language experience is an integral part of mediation because mediation is not just about the relationship of the parties, it is also about the relationship between their thoughts and words.


As mediators, we were trained to address conflict resolution and challenged to find the calm in the chaos. Many dispute resolution programs address communication as a step within a facilitative mediation process. Often they underscore the importance of developing strategies that prime the mediation environment so parties can effectively communicate and achieve linguistic competence.

Mediators can take a more proactive role to promote inclusivity. Exposure to multi-sensory probes and prompts enhance articulation skills and provides more access to and acquisition of thoughts to express what previously eluded parties.

Priming mediation sessions with more visual and kinesthetic prompts, probes or interventions creates an optimal environment for pre-planned communication interventions like reframing and caucus. It also provides mediators with opportunities to enhance a party’s language experiences, overcome a stockpile of reactions, and convey previously unapproachable ruminations in an approachable setting.

As mediators, we convene our sessions ready to overcome skepticism and use our superimposed skills to sort through BATNA’s and WATNA’s. Procedurally, we navigate and substantively de-escalate emotional components to foster good faith. With the best of intentions, we create presentations or write articles suggesting sensory processing be explored to influence or manipulate a party’s thinking to expedite settlement or, as I heard in a presentation in Atlanta, to use as a tool to influence parties to adopt the mediator’s thinking as their own.

I have not yet heard a warning shot or seen a flare signaling the inherent uni-sensory unfairness embedded in the mediation process when conducted with an auditory focus. If mediation used baseball metaphors, mediators are missing an opportunity to hit a grand slam because we focus on the stands and take our eyes off the ball.

Building a multi-sensory primed mediation environment just makes sense. A forum inclusive of mediator awareness of learning differences clarifies party needs as a listener and speaker and enhances relationship management. When the mediator associates sensory parallel phrases, like “I see what you mean” or I hear you loud and clear” when parties speak, it is hoped that the mediator’s insight will be used to clarify and empower parties, freeing them to access THEIR thoughts and tell THEIR story in THEIR words.

There are many concerns regarding the efficacy of mediation and its place in the legal world. If we parallel the theme in the movie Field of Dreams and build more inclusive multi-sensory frameworks to deliver information, we can level the playing field so most parties choose mediation knowing they can come and tell their story, be heard and understood. Communication is at the core of who we are and how we experience life. In the end, the most welcomed words in any language are, I understand you.


Berkowitz, Steffi. 1990. Curriculum Module for Listening and Sensory Integration: What to Do Before Speech and Language Develop. Bureau of Education for Exceptional Students, Florida Department of Education, Division of Public Schools

Berkowitz, Steffi. 1986. Invitation to address Peking Medical School Symposium on Cochlear Implants, Beijing, China. “Pausing, Thinking, Printing: Cross-cultural Differences in Tonal and Atonal Languages for Auditory Processing and Language Acquisition.”

Berkowitz, Steffi. 1986. Invitation to address Chinese Scientific Conference, Beijing, China. “Tonal Languages versus Atonal Languages – Using Four Chinese Mandarin Lexical Tones as Visual Probes Over English Words to Signal Pitch for Deaf and Hearing Impaired Children.”


Steffi Berkowitz

Steffi Berkowitz, an award winning educator, national and international trainer and former school district ombudsman-mediator, earned  bachelor and master’s degrees in speech/language pathology and communication disorders from the University of Miami. Steffi earned a second master’s degree in dispute resolution from Pepperdine University School of Law-Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. … MORE >

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