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Listening for the Echo in Mediation

As we develop as mediators, it has been suggested that we engage in a process that grows through three stages (Bowling & Hoffman, 2003). First, we learn technique.  Second, we begin to develop a deeper understanding of how and why mediation works.  Finally, we become more aware of how our personal qualities influence the mediation process for better or worse.  It is the third stage that keeps me entangled in the joy and frustrations of the mediation process.  In my view, technique takes a few days or weeks, a deeper understanding requires several months or years, and understanding our influence in the process takes a lifetime.  I am deeply engrossed in the third stage.

Regardless of the model of mediation you adhere to, if any, there is an influence that I have been musing about now for some time.  It is more a listening skill than anything else, but it starts with a word or a word group (Cloke & Goldsmith, 2005).  One of the parties might mention a word or group of words that resonates somehow.  There might be hundreds of words or dozens of word groups, but sometimes a specific word or group of words seems to stand more brightly and universal.  So, I will ask more questions about the word or word group, or in transformative mediation I might use the party’s own language to reflect or summarize, which might encourage empowerment and recognition (Bush & Folger, 2005).  It is what I hope is a powerful and worthwhile use of social influence to do this in mediation, and not a violation of some rule or bias of any particular mediator or model.  We have to be very careful to not overplay this idea or it will begin to look like it is our word or word group, and not the party’s words.  Too much, and we lose the opportunity completely, and too little and there is no traction for the parties. 

Recently, I was engaged in an enduring conflict as a facilitator and mediator where I was simply at a loss for what to do.  There were so many parties and so many issues that I was about to give up when one of the parties said something about how important it was “to work with like-minded people.”  Someone else from another member group picked this word group up in their narrative, and I quickly adapted it in my language in reflection, summary, and otherwise throughout the remainder of that day of mediation.  The word group became a rallying point for all the parties.  This word group had actually been used much earlier by one of the parties and I had used it briefly in reflection and summarizing.  Now, it echoed back from other parties in the conflict.  Recognizing the echo of this word group and using it promptly and prudently made all the difference.  We made progress that day and it opened up other doors for work in many other areas.  Done artfully the parties own the echo, not the mediator.

As the mediation process continues, I wait patiently and purposefully for the echo of the word or word group, and it is remarkable how many times this process turns into something worthwhile.  I have been in very intense and highly charged conflicts where mediation has been used as a method to work with the parties, and when I hear the echo of the word or word group that started as just an idea earlier I am encouraged.  Often mediation in highly conflicted matters can become frustrating, so the echo may reveal the first glimmer of hope, and so I welcome it when it comes.  The important aspect of this idea is that the parties are mostly interested in talking early in the process and I am mostly interested in listening.  So, more often than not the ideas come from the parties, and if I am listening attentively I can snatch the word or word group when it reveals itself.  And, the echo signals me that the parties have often forgotten how the word or word group came about in the process of mediation, and if I have performed my role well they own the word or word group completely, which is empowering for them.

While I have been patient and listening carefully for the echo, if I hear it I become more active immediately.  All the skills and techniques come into play, and any deeper understanding of how and why mediation works is tested.  And, the more I work on this idea the more I become aware that there is an internal echo I must be aware of and attentive to if I am to ever improve in understanding my influence in the mediation process, also.


Bowling, D., & Hoffman, D. A.  (2003). Bringing peace into the room: The personal qualities of the mediator and their impact on the mediation.  In D. Bowling & D. A. Hoffman (Eds.)  Bringing peace into the room (pp. 13-47).  San Francisco: Josey-Bass.

Bush, R. Folger, J. (2005).  The promise of mediation.  San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass Inc Publishers.

Cloke, K, & Goldsmith, J. (2005). Resolving conflicts at work. San Francisco: Josey-Bass Inc Publishers.


John Potter

John Potter is an Associate Professor in Dispute Resolution and Conflict Management at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. MORE >

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