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Multi-Party Facilitation – Improvisation: How to ‘Do The Jazz’ in Multi-party Facilitations

From the Author: I’m grateful to Peter Adler, James Melamed, Samantha Hardy, Nikola Balvin and Claire Holland for their vital roles in getting this essay published.”


Multi-party facilitations often reach such levels of complexity that the facilitator must be thoroughly prepared. However, things often don’t eventuate the way we predict and preparation alone is not enough to avoid a possible de-railing of the process. A skilled facilitator must be able to manage unexpected group dynamics in a similar way to a jazz musician taking part in an improvised performance.

Paradoxically, it is very difficult to improvise without practice. Improvisation is about making very rapid decisions and past experience forms the foundation for this process. This can be shown by comparisons with chess masters and theatre performers. However, this essay will also argue that the present moment of decision-making involves the other crucial factor of a successful judgment – our subconscious.

Therefore, quickly making the right decisions is about recognising patterns and behaviours that have been stored in your subconscious from past experiences. This can only be done by trusting one’s intuition and this essay suggests that consistent self-reflection is the key to developing our intuitive, improvisational abilities.


What does it mean to improvise? A general definition is “to compose and perform or deliver without previous preparation”[1] . It is important to distinguish between improvising without any preparation whatsoever and improvising without a previously prepared ‘script’. This essay will show that the latter more accurately reflects improvisation in a variety of fields. A look at the etymology can shed light on the distinction.

The word itself originates from the Latin ‘im + providere’, the root meaning ‘to look ahead’. It is this sense of having the foresight to make good, immediate decisions with an innate regard for the consequences that is at the heart of improvisation. “A negotiator who learns to react effectively in unpredictable moments clearly is an improviser. He or she somehow manages to cope regardless of the people, the problem, or the process in place.”[2] In other words, preparation is important but improvisation also involves making creative decisions that might depart from a preconceived plan. The key to this is in trusting one’s intuition.

Burke and Miller say that “[i]ntuition and creativity share common properties, and it has been suggested that intuition is a first and necessary stage of creativity, that some sort of preconscious activity guides an individual to novel ideas.”[3] . We are very used to solving problems using an analytical approach. This is a conscious process and usually involves the processing of much data and rational comparisons of options. Given enough complexity and time pressures, this process can result in rushed decisions that fail to take into account all the relevant information. Another common product of conscious analysis is indecision. So what do Burke and Miller mean by a “preconscious activity”[4] ? They are referring to intuition.

Many of us would have experienced some ‘gut feeling’ or ‘hunch’ about some situation that later turned out to be very accurate. This could be because we attribute more importance to accurate hunches in hindsight, but research has shown that intuition does in fact inform our decision-making.[5] Matzler et al describe intuition as “a highly complex and highly developed form of reasoning that is based on years of experience and learning, and on facts, patterns, concepts, procedures and abstractions stored in one’s head.”[6] So it seems that a major part of intuition is recognising something that one has consciously analysed or experienced in the past. I will elaborate on this point shortly.

For the purpose of this essay, it is also important to briefly define a ‘multi-party facilitation’. Crump and Glendon thoroughly analysed this topic and have proposed three types of multi-party facilitation contexts: “international negotiations, public disputes, and organizational and group negotiations”[7] . They distinguish between the terms ‘multi-party’ (involving many individuals, organisations, etc.) and ‘multi-lateral’ (involving many ‘sides’ in the negotiation). For example, a negotiation between the USA and the EU might be bi-lateral but could also be ‘multi-party’ since several countries could represent the EU. The parties within each ‘side’ in a negotiation could also be non-cooperative, but cooperative parties often form coalitions. All this presents many new challenges to a facilitator that are not present when only two people are negotiating. The difference is, of course, complexity and so our analysis of intuition must also take into account this factor. One of the best examples of complex decision-making is the game of chess.

Drawing parallels.

Chess perfectly illustrates the concept of improvisation. We can start playing with a general battle plan, but our moves quickly become dependent on the moves of our opponent. Ignoring them and sticking only to our plan will most often result in failure. Hence, we must improvise.

For those of us who have played chess at least once, the approach is pretty straightforward. We consciously analyse possible moves and then make the one that we think is best. This is similar to the rational decision-making approach mentioned earlier. The weakness of this approach becomes evident when we make a horrible move, run out of time or lose the game because we are unable to see the many moves ahead that are necessary. It is true that great chess players can ‘see’ many more moves ahead than amateurs but there is another subtle difference that sets them apart from the rest.

What may come as a surprise is that “[g]randmasters normally make a decision about where to move within a few seconds. They spend the remainder of their allotted time thinking the move through and considering whether it is the right one.”[8] So how can they make a decision so quickly with so many possible moves on the board in front of them? The key is pattern recognition. Professional chess players have experienced so many patterns of moves and positions that they begin to recognise a move that has worked well in the past. The need for double-checking will then depend on their analytical skills, wealth of experience and how much they trust their intuition. Once again, however, this introduces conscious analysis into the process and the dangers of over-thinking a decision will be discussed shortly.

A somewhat different example of improvisation appears in music, jazz music in particular. As opposed to most pieces of music that are performed identically to a prior composition, jazz often involves musicians ‘jamming’ or making up the composition as they go along. This, however, is not the same as playing notes or beats randomly. Bellman explains that “[t]he norms and expectations of jazz include certain conventions of harmony, chord structures, tempos, and rhythm. Musicians who are strangers to each other can improvise together because they have learned those conventions, perhaps at a conservatory.”[9] Improvisation here is about being experienced enough to know what works and what doesn’t and being skilled enough to execute your decisions successfully. Time pressure plays a role too because your fellow musicians aren’t going to stop and wait for you to make up your mind.

Improvisation is also a key element in, not surprisingly, improvisational theatre. This is different from actors reciting from a memorised script and involves them making up the script as they go along[10] . There are many challenges to this kind of improvisation and the key to making it work is the “yes, and” approach[11] . This is simply about accepting what someone has suggested, not contradicting it and working on developing the associated ideas further. In addition, actors have the challenge of making their performance authentic and perhaps humorous[12] . In contrast, disputes often involve the “yes, but” approach, which seems to be conciliatory but actually masks the disagreement of a more blunt “no” approach.

Katz says that the “cornerstone of improvisation” is “yes, and”. “Saying it accepts an improvised statement and starts adding to it.”[13] This, however, differs from a lot of conflict facilitations because they are more adversarial than, say, jazz or theatre. The concept, though, can be adopted because it is about being open-minded and not fixating on your own plan. In other words, improvisation is about saying “yes, and” to something unexpected or controversial (as opposed to rejecting it) and recognising the most suitable way to deal with the situation. It should be noted however that saying “no” may, at times, be the most suitable reaction.

Jazz musicians often improvise, but still work in a certain framework of musical norms and scales as well as reading the audience in a live performance. Actors can often ad-lib, but they work together according to the “yes, and” rule to create a seemingly scripted performance. In chess games, improvisation is an invaluable skill. A successful player will rely on pattern recognition and will adapt to changing conditions on the board to maximise tactical advantage. It is becoming clear that past experience and intuition can play a crucial role in decision-making. Now we can look at how this applies to a multi-party facilitation.

Making decisions in multi-party facilitations

A facilitator can start off a meeting with some ideas about how it may proceed. There might be an agenda or a suggested framework. There could be a list of goals that the group wishes to achieve. However, because of the complexity and unpredictability of human interactions, the facilitator can soon arrive at a fork in the road and will need to make decisions on the spot. Taking a “yes, and” approach and having the benefit of past experience can lead to more constructive decisions. But what exactly is an intuitive decision? Balachandra et al give a good description of intuitive decision-making in the following extract:

“By carefully watching how the parties respond and listening carefully for other cues, the mediator can then make “judgment calls” as to when to intervene with a question or a suggestion, or even when to draw one of the parties out of the room. Judgment calls are ways in which the mediator improvises over the basic structure of the mediation, much like a jazz musician or an improvisational comic.”[14]

This refers to a mediation, which, quite often, involves two disputants and a neutral third party. Note that the suggested approach is to carefully watch and listen to the interaction between the parties. Between two people there is one route of interaction. As one person speaks, the other usually listens[15] , thinks and then responds. A third party facilitating the discussion needs to be acutely aware of this interaction not only to keep track of what is being said, but also to pick up on any underlying dynamics. This might involve observing body language, people’s emotions and any particular reactions to something that was said. Such awareness is important in order to stay on the same wavelength as the two people involved in the discussion. At a certain point, the facilitator can make a conscious judgment call to intervene in some way.

As the number of disputants increases linearly, these possible routes of interactions increase exponentially[16] . As a result, a limit is quickly reached where the facilitator is unable to consciously keep track of all the interactions that are going on. If one person speaks at a time, this makes it easier. Also, a co-facilitator may take a more passive role and observe more of the interactions. However, we are all human and are limited in our attention and multi-tasking capacity. The dangers of conscious analysis have been mentioned earlier. The following extract explains why this is compounded by the complexity of multi-party facilitations:

“It has been shown that when people can devote only a limited amount of information processing capacity to making a decision (e.g., when they are under time pressure), normative, consciously driven processes can lead to worse decisions than more heuristic strategies (Payne, Bettman, & Jognson, 1988). This is because more elaborate, normative strategies only work well when all information is taken into account.”[17]

Dijksterhuis conducted several studies at the University of Amsterdam, which showed that, when it comes to complex decision-making (involving a lot of information), conscious thought results in poorer decisions. The study emphasised our very limited conscious processing capacity (at most, we can consciously scrutinise seven units of information at a time). For this reason, our brain has ways to minimise complexity by focusing, simplifying and filtering information. This is dangerous because it can result in assumptions, generalisations and biases. Our subconscious, however, has an amazing processing capacity and manifests itself via intuition. Dijksterhuis proposes that our subconscious can process information independently of conscious thought. To demonstrate this, one of the experiments involved providing participants with a lot of information, distracting them with a complex mathematical task and then immediately asking for a judgment based on the initial information. These participants were found to make better objective judgments (based on experimental criteria) than those who were not distracted and were given time to analyse the information. In fact, those who relied on rational analysis did worse than a third group, who were asked to make a decision immediately after being given the information. Although these results should be approached with scepticism, the study suggests that conscious analysis is incapable of processing large volumes of information quickly and results in worse decisions than intuitive judgments that do not involve conscious thought.

At this point it is important to issue a warning – trusting your gut instinct can lead to bad decisions. Gladwell mentions yet another possible pitfall that “[w]hen we make a split-second decision … we are really vulnerable to being guided by our stereotypes and prejudices, even ones we may not necessarily endorse or believe.”[18] This can be the case when the decision is strongly influenced by emotions such as fear, anger or desire. We might be convinced that a decision is the right one only to realise later that we were blinded by something very convincing. This is supported by Sadler-Smith’s warning that “[i]ntuition is dumb, and even potentially perilous, when it’s uninformed, based on guesses and ‘wishes’, used when rational analysis would suffice, is developed in a learning environment where there’s been little or no feedback, where intuition is kept in the closet, and when an intuitive judgment is treated as a certainty.”[19]

In the context of complex negotiations, Crump notes that “parties may use simplifying heuristics to manage negotiation complexity, which can result in negotiator bias and a cascade of errors”[20] . When our brains cannot cope with a lot of information, we tend to simplify things and to focus on that which stands out most or that to which we can relate.  This can be a helpful mechanism but often makes us ignore facts or even lie to ourselves. The concept of cognitive dissonance in psychology is one such example. Whatever the fallibilities might be, there is a way to minimise their influence on our intuition. This takes us into the realm of deep-sea divers, martial artists, yoga practitioners and athletes, to name a few. One of their common goals is to be ‘in the zone’. To understand this, we must examine how our body reacts in stressful situations.

The physiology of stress

In 1999, Burke and Miller conducted interviews of 60 experienced professionals in the U.S. about the role of intuition in their decision-making[21] . They found that many professionals rely on intuitive judgments although their definition of intuition varies. The most important factor that defined intuition for those interviewed was reliance on past experience. This was supported by the fact that more senior professionals tended to rely more on their intuition when faced with time pressures. The reason why they chose intuition over rational analysis was simply because they rarely had the time to process all the data. So what happens when you are asked to make an important decision and you have no time to make a proper analysis? Similarly, what happens when you know that your decision can result in something going horribly wrong? Naturally, you can freak out.

We have all experienced the physiological effects of stress during our lives, particularly when we have been nervous about something. Stress can arise when something unexpected occurs or when we are carrying a lot of responsibility. Our heart rate increases, our palms get sweaty and our throat gets dry. A lot of these effects are a result of our evolutionary ‘fight or flight’ instinct and are driven mainly by adrenalin. During group facilitations, stress can arise from many pressures including when the process doesn’t go according to our plan. In these moments, we must rely on our brain to process information and to make informed decisions. Unfortunately, “[n]euroscientists have proven that under stress our brains fall into the state of cortical inhibition, essentially closing down certain parts of our brains for use.”[22] People experiencing an adrenalin rush find it difficult to have an elaborate conversation. Complex motor skills also tend to switch off. This is crucial in self-defence and martial arts contexts, but is more widely known in the sporting arena. Professional athletes often have to perform under extreme pressure and the effects of adrenalin. For example, a footballer who has to take a penalty kick will be facing the immense pressure of thousands of people watching. It is not uncommon for people in such situations to cope by blocking out everything and focusing only on the task at hand. This is an example of extreme concentration and is often referred to as being ‘in the zone’.

How to get into the zone

Having discussed the physiological effects of stress, it is clear that our intuition can be hindered during stressful situations. Sadler-Smith points out that “if we’re able to disentangle intuitive judgment from emotions such as fear or wishful thinking, which can often hijack decision-making, it can also be a beacon assuring us that we are on the right track.”[23] There are many ways to calm down and the most common is simply taking a few deep breaths. This actually slows down the heart and has some immediate physiological benefits. The practices of meditation, yoga and tai-chi all have the similar effect of calming the mind and, in turn, calming the body. This mental discipline approach can be taken during a stressful situation to become more in tune with one’s surroundings, more receptive to other people and more relaxed in one’s thinking. Sadler-Smith describes it as creating “the inner state that will give your intuitive mind the freedom to roam”.[24] It is possible, in fact, to train one’s physiological response to stress.

Why is it that if we are faced with a drug-crazed, aggressive assailant we are likely to panic or freeze, whereas a veteran police officer can handle the situation calmly and professionally? The obvious answer is that the police officer is trained to deal with all kinds of confrontations. However, this explanation is superficial. The adrenalin response to a stressful situation is innate in basically all of us. Any amount of theoretical training is not going to prevent one’s heart rate from increasing. The key is reality-based training. In his book Blink, Gladwell discusses realistic, security personnel training. He describes an “exercise where … trainees are required to repeatedly confront a ferocious dog. “In the beginning, their heart rate is 175. They can’t see straight. Then the second or third time, it’s 120, and then it’s 110, and they can function.” [25] What this shows is that after being exposed to certain stressful situations, we become mentally toughened to them and are not overwhelmed by emotions when we find ourselves in a similar situation. It’s almost impossible to resist a reflex reaction but it is possible to very quickly regain control of one’s senses. This is quite relevant when it comes to teaching facilitation skills and techniques to inexperienced facilitators. Theory must be complemented by practice and, most importantly, realistic practice. Role-plays are often used, but are essentially different from a realistic experience. This is because participants are not professional actors and often have difficulty replicating the emotional aspects of a negotiation.  And emotion is exactly what causes so much stress in group discussions. Balachandra et al talk about improvisation in the context of teaching negotiation in their 2005 article[26] . The analysis of reality-based teaching approaches is, however, beyond the scope of this essay.

Getting into ‘the zone’ is about a combination of prior, realistic training and the application of mental discipline during a stressful moment. The calm, focused state described as ‘the zone’ is often characterised as a smooth flow of correct decisions that are made not by conscious, rational analysis but by rapid, intuitive judgments. An important distinction about focus must now be made.

Mental focus is used in meditation and other practices to eliminate distractions. By focusing on one’s breathing and nothing else, the common chattering thought process can cease and one can become more aware. Focus, however, can have the negative effect of blinkering our perception. For example, listening intently to someone speaking can cause us to stop paying attention to what else is going on around us. So an important part of getting into ‘the zone’ is about having a mental focus but also retaining as much awareness as possible[27] . This can seem contradictory but makes sense because focus allows us to reduce distractions, which makes us more aware of other things that are going on.

There is an interesting technique used by some free-divers (diving without an oxygen tank) called “attention deconcentration”. A Russian diver named Natalia Molchanova describes this technique in an online article.[28] This is actually an ancient technique used in martial arts by samurai, for example, and has recently been developed by another Russian academic named Oleg Bakhtiarov[29] . In short, it involves unfocusing our vision so that we are not looking at anything in particular. It involves paying more attention to our peripheral vision and, in a sense, seeing the bigger picture in front of us. Although this technique might seem strange, it has actually been proven to have certain physiological effects like the slowing of the heart and more efficient use of oxygen. For this reason, divers prepare for dives not only physically but also mentally. 

So far we have seen the importance of having a calm and centered state of mind when making intuitive decisions. Far from being simply wishful thinking, the aforementioned techniques have a physiological basis. “The clarity state is characterized by a balance of physical, mental and emotional systems. According to findings in both neuroscience and sports physiology, it is actually a measurable physical and emotional state of being relaxed, positive and focused.”[30] The benefits of intuitive decision-making are apparent but how a facilitator gets into ‘the zone’ is a matter of personal development. The state of seamless facilitation is usually only reached after years of practice and is commonly referred to as “unconscious competence”.[31] I have mentioned various strategies of relying on one’s subconscious, intuitive judgments but how does one reach the stage of confidence where it is possible to stay centered and to be able to trust one’s intuition? This essay will now elaborate on this journey.

Pathways to unconscious competence

In his book Blink[32] , Malcolm Gladwell points out that experts can make quick, intuitive decisions without relying on conscious analysis. He also warns that people who are unfamiliar with the subject matter of the decision are often misled by their initial reactions and make the wrong decisions. So how does one become an expert who is in tune with his or her intuition?   

Peter Adler has described the pathways to mastery as a pyramid.[33] Below the pyramid is the level called “Natural gifts and curiosities”. This complements the first and largest level of the pyramid called “Teachers and observable models”. This is an important first stage because not relying on the wealth of others’ experiences can lead to bad habits that are difficult to undo. This stage also highlights the importance of having good teachers and mentors to share that wealth of knowledge and to motivate novices along the pathway. “Practice, repetition, experience and unconsciously stored sequences” is the next level of the pyramid and is, as this essay has shown, the crucial level of the pathway to mastery. It builds on the previous, theoretical level and because theory in this field is relatively recent and is constantly being informed by practical feedback. Adler has reflected on his personal experience that if your decision is based on prior practice and is contrary to theory, then it is the theory that needs to be changed.[34] The cumulative storage of practical experiences is what results in the library of patterns that we are later able to recognise subconsciously in the same way a professional chess player would recognise the right moves. “The more extensive a decision maker’s experience, the more patterns he or she will be familiar with; the more patterns, the better the intuition.”[35] The pathway to mastery is about integrating past experiences into the subconscious for later use in moments of stress or pressure. Morgan-Jones describes this process eloquently in his article about the judging of show-dogs:

“Acquiring an ability to intuitively recognize an exemplary exhibit, one that possesses the characteristics deemed ideal for its breed, requires a combination of commitment and passion. There is a cumulative sensitivity involved that is only gained through continued study and increased familiarity. That which we call lore, the esoteric body of knowledge about a particular breed, has to become integrated within the psyche.”[36]

Tying together the two main points discussed so far, it can be seen that past experience that has an emotional basis forms the core of our subconscious programming. For this reason, the practice and repetition described by Adler should not merely be a matter of rote-learning but should stir us in the process. Any practice must be realistic and must prepare us for the emotional aspects of future challenges in order that we might have the best chance to get into ‘the zone’. The next level of Adler’s pyramid – “Graced moments” – refers to this ‘being in the zone’ or ‘being in the moment’, in my opinion. However, I think it is the ultimate goal of mastery and should be preceded by the last level of Adler’s pyramid – “Obsessed study”. I will elaborate on this last level shortly because it seems to me to be the crucial last hurdle before “Graced moments” can occur. More accurately, they might sometimes occur without “Obsessed study”, but in order to regularly reach the highest level of mastery, “Obsessed study” is truly necessary. My interpretation of this level, however, might differ from Adler’s. Sadler-Smith suggests that mastery can be attained “[t]hrough practice, practice, practice: a process which can be accelerated by intense, deliberate and focused ‘workouts’ (analogous to the practice that a virtuoso musician puts in)”.[37] Here, Sadler-Smith hints at a way to complement practical experience but what exactly does a ‘workout’ involve in the context of multi-party facilitation? This could be a topical conference or a personal development workshop. However, these cannot be done with the same regularity and intensity as, say, the rehearsals of a jazz musician. The crucial factor on the pathway to mastery is contained in Burke and Miller’s suggestion that “[m]editation, journal writing, and mind mapping may also be useful in becoming more knowledgeable about intuition.”[38] I strongly agree with the attitude of Samantha Hardy that reflective learning is a key ingredient along the pathway to unconscious competence[39] .

Reflective learning: the key to intuitive decision-making

It was Albert Einstein who said that “insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results”.[40] This is exactly why many people never move from the incompetence stages to those of competence. It might be that context plays a role in how our facilitation approach will eventuate. An approach that doesn’t work once might work in different circumstances. However, when an approach results in problems time and again, it is the sane person who will ask “What should I be doing differently?” Kopeikina states that “[t]he ability to envision can be developed and sharpened with practice and continuous assessment of the past decisions’ results.”[41] This continuous assessment of past decisions’ results is the major part of “Obsessed study” discussed earlier. It sometimes requires the overpowering of the ego response that the problem is external. Rational analysis of personal experience, for once, is required together with an honest assessment of one’s capabilities and a great way to do this regularly is by having a reflective journal.

In her article, Hardy describes the growing body of research that examines reflective practice[42] .  Having a reflective journal is not merely about recording events that occurred. This would simply be the minutes of a meeting. Some of us might remember having a diary during childhood where we wrote down those things that really mattered to us. This example is closer to a reflective journal because it usually includes the emotions that accompanied our experiences. In a way, a personal diary is an emotional outlet for dealing with past experiences. A reflective journal, however, goes a step further. The key to a successful reflective journal is to include constructive criticism of one’s past experiences and emotional reactions as well as rationally analysing any shortcomings or problem areas. The purpose of this approach is to transform those behaviours that don’t work for us. Not only is the aim to consciously change our behaviours and reactions to situations, but, with consistent reflection and gradual implementation, the ultimate goal is to replace the unconsciously stored sequences that give rise to the unwanted behaviours.

For example, someone might consistently fail to meet deadlines. Unless he admits that this is a problem, nothing is likely to change. The realisation might come from reflecting on past experiences and the feelings of frustration and disappointment that accompanied them. The next step would be to figure out what factors combine to cause the problem behaviour and to propose changes in attitudes, approaches, practices etc. With consistent reflection and self-feedback, this person might begin to notice a change in his habits, which, in fact, arise from changes in his subconscious. From the use of reflective journals during my Masters course, I have personally experienced the reflective process. I felt overwhelmed in facilitations, which elicited a strong emotional response. I critically analysed this in my reflective journal and came up with approaches to deal with the problem. I realised that I needed to learn how to stay in the moment (something discussed in detail in this essay). The trick was not to frantically write things down or think ahead, but to simply listen to and participate in the conversation. After consistently focusing on this and making conscious interventions, I experienced moments when I did feel like I was ‘in the zone’. This experience was a direct result of my reflective practice and has formed a strong foundation for further reflective learning.


This essay has shown that multi-party facilitations are much more complex than those involving only two parties. This complexity, in turn, poses a significant mental processing challenge to facilitators, who often have to think on their feet. In such a situation, facilitators face a choice – to rely on conscious, rational analysis or to rely on their intuitive judgment. Unable to process all the available information and with added time pressure, intuitive judgments become a preferred option and, surprisingly, lead to positive outcomes. The reason for this is that our intuition relies on recognition of prior experiences and patterns by our subconscious.

I have explained the importance of expertise in trusting one’s intuition. Novices who rely on ‘gut instinct’ quite often make wrong decisions. There are many reasons for this, including overpowering emotions, physiological effects of stress, biases and stereotypes. There are various ways to deal with many of these, but the most important approach is practice and exposure to similar, realistic situations. Finally, reflective practice is the crucial factor in reaching unconscious competence. Successful chess players, jazz musicians and athletes would never have become successful if they hadn’t learned from their mistakes. Reflective learning is emerging as a very effective approach to moving from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence and the ability to ‘do the jazz’.

One of the benefits of facilitators modelling certain behaviours is that the parties involved may adopt these behaviours for themselves. It follows that an improvisational and reflective facilitator would be able to demonstrate the benefits of spontaneous and creative behaviour to the parties he/she is facilitating, thus giving them much more than they expected.

See animations on the role of attorneys in mediation:

Animation 1

Animation 2


  • Adler, P. “Unconscious Excellence: An Exploration of Mastery and Incompetence” from “Bringing Peace Into the Room: How the Personal Qualities of the Mediator Impact the Process of Conflict Resolution”, Bowling D. and Hoffman D., Editors, Jossey-Bass, 2003.

  • Balachandra, L. et al “Improvisation and Negotiation: Expecting the Unexpected” (October, 2005) Negotiation Journal at 415.

  • Balachandra, L. et al “Improvisation and Mediation: Balancing Acts” (October, 2005) Negotiation Journal at 425.

  • Balachandra, L. et al “Improvisation and Teaching Negotiation: Developing Three Essential Skills” (October, 2005) Negotiation Journal at 435.

  • Bellman, H. “Improvisation, Mediation, and All That Jazz” (July, 2006) Negotiation Journal at 325.

  • Burke, L. and Miller, M. “Taking the mystery out of intuitive decision making” (1999) 13 Academy of Management Executive 4 at 91.

  • Crump, L. “Multiparty Negotiation and the Management of Complexity” (2003) 8 International Negotiation 189.

  • Crump, L. and Glendon, A. “Towards a Paradigm of Multiparty Negotiation” (2003) 8 International Negotiation 197.

  • Dijksterhuis, A. “Think Different: The Merits of Unconscious Thought in Preference Development and Decision Making” (2004) 87 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 5 at 586.

  • Douglas, K. “Mediation and Improvisation: Teaching Mediators to Improvise the Storylines of Mediation” (2007) 14(2) Murdoch University E Law Journal at 133.

  • Gladwell, M. “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” 2005 Little, Brown & Co: New York.

  • Glass, R.L. “Intuition’s Role in Decision Making” (2008) IEEE Software at 95.

  • Harding, C. “Improvisation and Negotiation: Making It Up as You Go Along” (April, 2004) Negotiation Journal at 205.

  • Hardy, S. “Teaching Mediation as Reflective Practice” (July 2009) 25 Negotiation Journal at 385.

  • Heron, J. “The Complete Facilitator’s Handbook” (1999) Kogan-Page Ltd, London.

  • Katz, G. “Through Jazz, Bringing Mediation ‘Fresh to Life’” (2008) 121 Los Angeles Daily Journal at 121.

  • Kopeikina, L. “The Elements of a  Clear Decision” (Winter 2006) 47 MIT Sloan Management Review 2 at 19.

  • Lowe, R. “Improvisation, Inc. : harnessing spontaneity to engage people and groups” (2000) Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, San Fransisco.

  • Matzler, K. et al “Intuitive Decision Making” (Fall 2007) 49 MIT Sloan Management Review 1 at 13.

  • Morgan-Jones, G. “Intellect and Intuition: The mental process of judging is a dynamic interplay of cognitive thought and instinct” (2006) 123 AKC Gazette 7 at 16.

  • Pretz, J.E. “Intuition versus analysis: Strategy and experience in complex everyday problem solving“ (April 2008) 36(3) Memory & Cognition at 554.

  • Sadler-Smith E., “Intuition in decision-making: friend or foe?” (July 2007) Training Journal at 35.


Lines of Communication


It can be seen here that as the number of people in a negotiation increases linearly (i.e. 2, 3, 4, 5…) the number of possible routes of interaction increase exponentially (i.e. 1, 3, 6, 10…). This is a major factor that distinguishes multi-party facilitations from facilitations involving two parties.


[2] Balachandra, L. et al “Improvisation and Negotiation: Expecting the Unexpected” (October, 2005) Negotiation Journal 415 at 416.
[3] Burke, L. and Miller, M. “Taking the mystery out of intuitive decision making” (1999) 13(4) Academy of Management Executive 91 at 97.
[4] See note 3 above.
[5] Malcolm Gladwell has examined this topic thoroughly in his book: “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” 2005 Little, Brown & Co: New York.
[6] Matzler, K. et al “Intuitive Decision Making” (Fall 2007) 49 (1) MIT Sloan Management Review 13 at 14.
[7] See Crump, L. and Glendon, A. “Towards a Paradigm of Multiparty Negotiation” (2003) 8 International Negotiation 197.
[8] See note 6 above.
[9] Bellman, H. “Improvisation, Mediation, and All That Jazz” (July, 2006) Negotiation Journal 325 at 326.
[10] For a thorough description of improvisational acting, see Harding, C. “Improvisation and Negotiation: Making It Up as You Go Along” (April, 2004) Negotiation Journal at 205.
[11] See above.
[12] For a humorous variation of improvisational theatre, see the “stand, sit, kneel” exercise where actors also have to satisfy the condition of, at any one time, someone always doing one of each of the three actions. For example, see:
[13] Katz, G. “Through Jazz, Bringing Mediation ‘Fresh to Life’” (2008) 121 Los Angeles Daily Journal at 121.
[14] Balachandra, L. et al “Improvisation and Mediation: Balancing Acts” (October, 2005) Negotiation Journal 425 at 427.
[15] This is unless the other person is busy interrupting or thinking about what to say next.
[16] See Appendix A.
[17] Dijksterhuis, A. “Think Different: The Merits of Unconscious Thought in Preference Development and Decision Making” (2004) 87(5) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 586 at 587.
[18] See note 5 above, p233.
[19] Sadler-Smith E., “Intuition in decision-making: friend or foe?” (July 2007) Training Journal 35 at 39.
[20] Crump, L. “Multiparty Negotiation and the Management of Complexity” (2003) 8 International Negotiation 189 at 193.
[21] See Burke, L. and Miller, M. “Taking the mystery out of intuitive decision making” (1999) 13(4) Academy of Management Executive 91.
[22] Kopeikina, L. “The Elements of a  Clear Decision” (Winter 2006) 47(2) MIT Sloan Management Review 19 at 19.
[23] Sadler-Smith E., “Intuition in decision-making: friend or foe?” (July 2007) Training Journal 35 at 35.
[24] See note above, at 39.
[25] See note 5 above, at p238.
[26] Balachandra, L. et al “Improvisation and Teaching Negotiation: Developing Three Essential Skills” (October, 2005) Negotiation Journal at 435.
[27] In Japanese martial arts, this state is called ‘mu-shin’, meaning ‘mind of no mind’. For more detail, see:
[28] (In English).
[29] Bakhtiarov’s website is in Russian: For a discussion of “attention deconcentration” in English, see also:
[30] See note 22 above.
[31] For example, see Adler, P. “Unconscious Excellence: An Exploration of Mastery and Incompetence” from “Bringing Peace Into the Room: How the Personal Qualities of the Mediator Impact the Process of Conflict Resolution”, Bowling D. and Hoffman D., Editors, Jossey-Bass, 2003.
[32] See note 5 above.
[33] Taken from lecture notes on Multi-Party Facilitation and Capacity Building course, ACPACS, Melbourne, September 2009.
[34] From Peter Adler’s Multi-Party Facilitation and Capacity Building course, ACPACS, Melbourne, September 2009.
[35] See note 6 above.
[36] Morgan-Jones, G. “Intellect and Intuition: The mental process of judging is a dynamic interplay of cognitive thought and instinct” (2006) 123(7) AKC Gazette 16 at 17.
[37] See note 19 above.
[38] Burke, L. and Miller, M. “Taking the mystery out of intuitive decision making” (1999) 13(4) Academy of Management Executive 91 at 96.
[39] For a full discussion of reflective learning, see Hardy, S. “Teaching Mediation as Reflective Practice” (July 2009) 25 Negotiation Journal 385.
[41] See note 22 above, at 20.
[42] See note 39 above.


Alex Azarov

Alex Azarov is an associate of MediatEUr, a Brussels-based peace mediation NGO. He is currently working on helping Ukrainians to develop dialogue capacity for dealing with the challenges facing their country.    Alex has worked in Australia as a tenant advocate at a community legal centre in Sydney. More recently… MORE >

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