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Learning Styles In Mediation

Each one of us is unique in how we perceive and process the world around us. These perceiving and processing qualities are known as learning styles, and when they meet, they can lead to anything from the highest levels of agreement to the deepest chasms of division. Understanding these learning styles can help us use the full range of our cognitive abilities and explain the different ways we interact with the world around us. This will allow the mediator to more completely reconcile the disparate perceptions among the parties in a dispute.

Parties in conflict face communication barriers that are most effectively alleviated by the skillful intervention of a third party with a thorough set of communication skills. Learning styles offers us a different way to understand communication styles, and can allow the mediator to more completely engage the parties. In this paper, we will consider the integration of learning style principles into mediation as one way to approach these communication barriers.


The first step in interaction is considering how our senses take in the world around us. There are three basic sensing modes; seeing, listening and doing. In order to communicate completely we need to use all 3 modalities.

  • 33% of us learn by seeing and imagining,
  • 24% of us learn by listening and verbalizing,
  • 14% of us learn by doing and manipulating,
  • 29% of us learn with more than one modality
  • Our left-brain mode likes structure and sequence.
  • Our right-brain mode likes random patterns, is visual-spatial, is emotional and looks at the big picture.

These modalities may have contributed to the conflict in the first place (you never listen, why can’t you see, if we could do it this way) but their greatest strength is their ability to aid in the resolution. By using all 3 modalities and both modes of the brain, the mediator can help the parties more clearly understand each other. These are the keys to allowing for a variety of expression in mediation. Listed below are some of the ways to apply these modalities in mediation.

Modality Application (we need to use all of these)
Visual: Flip charts, maps, drawings, pictures, lighting
Auditory: Spoken word, music, clear acoustics, silence
Somatic: Take notes, change location, take a break
Left brain: Fact based discussion, negotiating agreement
Right brain: Option generation, big picture, emotion

Processing and Cognition

Each one of us understands the world around us in our own way. When we come across a new situation, some of us sense and feel our way, while others think things through to connect the experience to meaning. Research has shown that we all have different aspects of the same human capacities. It is our ability to use these universal attributes that allow us to constructively work together.

Our perspective is the way we view reality. It is the combination of how we take in the world around us and what we think about it. When we interact with others, we are using our filter of the world. So the reconciliation of different perspectives becomes our first challenge in resolving conflict. Through understanding these perspectives, we help the parties develop a broader understanding and consider other points of view. Next, we compare their perspectives with each other. As mediators, we act as cultural translators through the constructive exchange of these perspectives in helping the parties more clearly appreciate the others point of view. Hopefully, this leads to empathy, the beginning of a meaningful resolution.

A clearer understanding of how we learn is central to the mediation process. A number of researchers have identified similar paths to the way that we learn. One of these models, 4MAT, combines eight different pedagogical theories into a single model. It begins with the work of Carl Jung and ends most recently with David Kolb. All of the work from these researchers shows a quadrant around learning styles.

People learn in different ways and these differences depend on many things; who we are, where we are, how we see ourselves and what people ask of us. But there are two major spectrums in how we learn. The first is how we perceive the world around us, how we take in that world and how we interact with that world. Perceiving goes from active experimentation to reflective observation. As we perceive the world around us some of us jump right in and try it, while others watch what is happening and reflect on it. If we jump right in and try it, we are called active learners. If we stand back and watch the world, we are called reflective learners.

Active Perceiving Reflective
Experimentation Observation

The second spectrum is how we process the world around us, how we think and feel about that world, how we make it part of ourselves. The thinkers tend to reflect on new things and filter these new things through their own experience to create meaningful connections. The sensing/feelers act on new information immediately. They think once they have tried it out and they need to extend it into their world.

<-Sensing / Feeling----------------- Processing ——————- Thinking->

To completely address a situation, we need to engage people at all parts of both spectrums, and recognize that diversity contributes significantly to our ability to promote understanding. When we combine these two spectrums, we come up with four different quadrants as you can see from the diagram.

Diagram of 4MAT


What if?- Implication
Connection – Why??
How?- Application
Examination – What?


If we consider the learning style characteristics from those four quadrants, we come up with some interesting observations. In the first quadrant are imaginative learners. They perceive information concretely, and process it reflectively. They integrate experience with the self, they learn by listening and sharing ideas. They are imaginative thinkers who believe in their own experience. They believe in what has happened to them and they excel in viewing direct experience from many perspectives. They work in harmony, and they need to be personally involved.

Analytic learners in the second quadrant perceive information abstractly and process it reflectively. They devise theories by integrating their observations into what is known. They see continuity; they need to know what the experts think. They learn by thinking through ideas.

In quadrant three, we see common sense learners. They perceive information abstractly and process that actively. They integrate theory and practice. They learn by testing theories and applying common sense. They are pragmatists and they believe that if it works, use it.

In the fourth quadrant are dynamic learners, who perceive information concretely and process it actively. They integrate experience in application and learn by trial and error. They are believers in self-discovery and enthusiastic about new things. They are adaptable and even relish change, and they often reach accurate conclusions in the absence of logical justification.

We need to recognize the unique contributions that each of those four quadrants can provide and to work with all four of them. As mediators, we need to feel comfortable in each of those quadrants and each of those quadrants offers unique gifts to any situation. And it’s when we can get all four quadrants to work together that we truly have complete resolution.

A mediation process based on learning styles should cycle through all 4 quadrants. In the first quadrant, we connect with each other, with the situation and share multiple perspectives. In the second quadrant, we consider observations, facts and available resources. The third quadrant allows us to test theories and apply common sense. In the fourth quadrant we employ our imagination and intuition to discover new possibilities.

4MAT in Mediation


Implication – what can we try?
Connection – why is this important?
Application – what is working?
Examination – what do we know?


One of the most practical applications for this model is to look at the questions it generates in each of the quadrants. If we ask questions from each quadrant we know we have addressed each learning style and offered opportunities for participation for everyone in the room.

1. Connection – transformative quadrant – Why is this important?
How has this issue affected you, the other, your relationship? How can we all work together (ground rules)? What types of agreement will meet the needs of all parties? What type of future relationship do we want?

2. Examination – legal quadrant – What do we know?
What do the experts say? What are the facts from each perspective? What more do we need to know? How can we analyze what we know?

3. Application – problem solving quadrant – What is working?
What has worked? What is best for all concerned? What does common sense tell us?

4. Implication – creativity quadrant – What can we try?
What would you like to change? What are your best ideas?

Finally, Edward DeBono crated the 6 Thinking Hat process as a way to address how our brain works best in problem solving. The same model of quadrants also work from a 6 Thinking Hat perspective.

1. Connection – Red Hat – feelings
2. Examination – White hat, information
3. Application – Yellow hat, will work; black hat, won’t work
4. Imagination – green hat, new ideas
The sixth hat is blue and is used to direct the process.

There is no limit to the questions this model can generate. It provides the framework for a complete model of mediation. Each of the quadrants offers opportunities for resolution, but together they offer the greatest possibility for addressing all aspects of learning which allows for complete expression and participation. Conflict provides a unique and challenging opportunity for the parties to learn, change and grow. This model shows how to connect how we our learn with the practice of mediation.


Trip Barthel

TRIP BARTHEL is the Founder and Executive Director of the Neighborhood Mediation Center in Reno, Nevada. Trip practices and teaches mediation and conflict resolution through the National Judicial< College, University of Nevada, Reno, and Truckee Meadows Community College. Trip has worked in Russia, China and India during the last 3… MORE >

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