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Mediation Failures to be Blamed on Chairs

Next time your fantastic mediation skills failed to guide your parties to settlement (hey that’s the only sign of success right?), it might be the chair’s fault.  Yes, I said chair, as in the things we sit on.  Research has shown that the harder the chair is the person is sitting on correlates with a tougher stance towards negotiating. 

It might not be a surprise to the readers of my blog that I have an interest in nonverbal communication.  What used to be my meditation room is now fully stacked with numerous research textbooks, printouts from journals, and other research related materials on nonverbal communication.  The chair research does not come from one of those publications whose enjoyment in reading them is usually limited to research addicts like me, but rather USA Today.

Back to the chair and how you can now blame it if your mediations are not ending with handshakes, high-fives, and signatures on agreement documents.  Actually, you are to blame as something you must be mindful of in your preparations is a critical nonverbal element- the environment which includes chair selection.

Environment is the “E” in the acronym METTA, which is something I created to help people, mediators and conflict resolution professional in particular, be aware all the various nonverbal elements involved in an interaction.  I find by creating acronyms it makes it easier to retain information.  Perhaps this is do to my paramilitary training in the police department where it seems like there is an acronym for everything.

The full list of elements in METTA include:

M- Movement: This includes body language and gestures

E- Environment: The room arrangement and choice of location

T- Tone: Yes, the old saying “it’s not what you say but how you say it,” is very important

T- Touch:  For mediation purposes, this deals primarily with handshakes

A- Appearance:  What you wear does matter (really)

Back to the “environment” and specifically chairs.  How you, as the mediator, arrange the room is important as it can have a substantial impact and often on a subconscious level on the style and approach the parties will negotiate.  Research has validated this and as I have mentioned in the opening paragraph, it even applies to the type of chairs people are sitting in.

The research study, conducted by Joshua M. Ackerman of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, involved an experiment of 86 people taking part in a negotiation over a car priced at $16,500.  The difference between the people negotiating were they were either sitting on a hard wooden chair, or a soft padded chair.

Those seated in the hard wooden chair were stricter in their negotiating tactics by raising their offered price by $896.50 while those in the soft chairs were willing to go up to an extra $1,243.60.

Of course there are many different way to interpret this and come to the conclusion that there must have been other factors involved, possibly include the person’s predisposition to negotiation.  To use “mediator-speak” yes, that can be true and this study’s implications should not be brushed off.  For example, other research has shown how not only our emotions are displayed through our body language but it also works in the reverse direction.

Think about your selection of chairs and if they do not have an armrest for people to rest their arms on.  The people are more likely then to cross them over their abdomen or chest.  This closed off position can create a closed mindset and thus make negotiating and being open to the other side’s offers limited.

The environment and room arrangement should be something every mediator should include as part of their preparation for each case.  The table choice, if using one at all; chair selection; position of the chairs; and even the choice of location are just a few of the nonverbal communication elements which might seem insignificant when discerned in isolation, but looking at mediation as a gestalt, it has important implications on the process and the possible results.

Although now you can blame the chair for lack of settlement, ultimately the blame lies with you in choosing it.

See: Randolph E. Schmid, “Study: how things feel effects what people do,” USA Today, June 24, 2010, accessed Feb. 23, 2011  (


Jeff Thompson

Jeff Thompson, Ph.D., is a professor at Lipscomb University, researcher, mediator, and trainer. He is also involved in crisis and hostage negotiation as well as a law enforcement detective. His research includes law enforcement crisis and hostage negotiation in terrorist incidents. He received his doctorate from Griffith University Law School… MORE >

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