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Summarizing: An Under-Appreciated Mediator Skill

The skill of summarizing is often taken for granted. Many assume that anyone can recap points made by another. But summarizing in mediation, and doing it well, is another matter. Scholars tell us that summarizing is a skill that can be improved with understanding and practice. This essay holds that, in mediation, summarizing is an important skill with numerous benefits and should be understood, taught and practiced.

A summary is a condensation of another’s message and is different from the paraphrase. It might be analogous to a speech in reverse. While a speaker outlines a message, the delivered speech is an amplification of the outline. The summarizer listens to the amplified message and jots down the main idea along with its supporting points, i.e., the outline. It is realized that not all statements in mediation are well organized. In such cases, the mediator must decide whether or not to impose structure on the party’s statement. If so, it is crucial that the summary be verified and accepted by the party. The summary is different from the paraphrase as the paraphrase, rather than a condensation, restates the speaker’s message in the listener’s words.

In mediation, summarizing often occurs after each party has presented his/her side of the dispute. It can also be used later in the mediation to juxtapose points that both parties have made. Because the summary is significantly shorter than the original message, it is helpful in providing an overview of the progress. Finally, a summary at the end of the discussion can serve as a transition into the agreement phase.

In mediation, summarizing involves articulating the essence of each party’s ideas in the mediator’s words. Just as the original message will have both a content dimension and an emotional dimension, so should the summary. The mediator should listen for both. Although parties express their emotions using extremes of vocal pitch, rate and emphasis, the mediator is restricted to describing the expressed emotions, e.g., “Let me summarize what I’m hearing. Bill, you appear quite angry and hurt because of Mary’s continual lateness. I also hear you saying ….”

Effective summarizing has benefits to each party and to the quality of the mediation. It communicates to a party that he/she is being heard and valued by the mediator. Feeling heard and valued are often not inherent when disputants are left to their own devices. The summary can reduce confusion by feeding back what the parties have been saying, by helping them assess where they are in relation to each other and choosing where to go next (see Bush & Folger, 155). The summarizer should be careful not to interpret or distort what was said. If a discrepancy is heard, a party may correct aspects of the mediator’s summary. In fact, the mediator should invite adjustment of any inaccuracies. Should significant correction occur, further elaboration of the original statement may be needed. A balanced summary toward the end of the mediation assures the parties that the mediator is objective and attuned to the whole dispute.

When summarizing, the mediator should keep several guidelines in mind:

  • listen carefully for the key idea and supporting points (take notes)
  • attend to the emotional tone of the message and make it part of the summary
  • use the parties’ language choices whenever possible
  • when appropriate, summarize in a way that addresses the parties together
  • when appropriate, highlight differences in order to promote clarity
  • do not omit any topic brought up by a party
  • do not soften or dilute differences
  • do not belabor the summary (this is likely if other than the key ideas are included)
  • solicit feedback from the party (or parties) regarding the accuracy of the summary

Summarizing is a skill that applies to all types of mediation. Today, at least two diverse schools of thought exist in mediation–the “Settlement School” and the “Interaction School” (Bush & Folger, 2005). The Settlement School expects the mediator to lead the session and intercede (through reframing, caucusing, etc.) to promote settlement and minimize the negative emotional effects of conflict talk. The Interaction School expects the parties to take the lead and deal openly (and frankly) with each other. The mediator largely stays out of the picture; reframing and caucusing, if used at all, are rare. Both schools, however, endorse summarizing as an essential mediator tool.

Summarizing Exercise

This exercise was developed to help participants further understand and practice summarizing. It has two phases:

Phase I

Divide the participants into groups of two labeling one member PARTY and the other, MEDIATOR. PARTY is provided a written statement (see Appendix). PARTY reads the statement (with proper emotional tone) while MEDIATOR listens and takes notes. MEDIATOR then summarizes by articulating PARTY’S key content and emotions. MEDIATOR ends by asking PARTY if the summary was accurate.
[A variation would be to have MEDIATOR intentionally make an error to be corrected by PARTY.]

Phase II

In Phase II the statement is handed to the other participant and the roles reversed; the NEW PARTY reads the statement and the NEW MEDIATOR listens, takes notes, summarizes, and asks for feedback. Although the exercise might be less challenging for NEW MEDIATOR, redundancy always aids in learning and skill building. Perhaps increased rigor could be expected of the second summary.

This article asserted that summarizing in mediation is a basic, but important, skill that is often taken for granted. After elaborating on the nature of the summary and its value to mediation, several guidelines were offered. An exercise was developed to encourage participants to implement the guidelines and polish their summarizing skills.


Bush, R.A.B, and Folger, J.P. (2005). The promise of mediation: The transformative approach to conflict. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


The following are six opening statements are included for the above exercise. The reader should attend to the suggested emotions. Note: In keeping with the nature of some disputants’ statements several of these entries remain slightly unorganized.


Mary. My name is Mary Donohue. I am a Dental Hygienist who worked for Dr. Smith for over six years. I have an untarnished work and attendance record. I worked very hard including putting in overtime on short notice; I even performed duties not on my job description such as rescheduling patients and looking up financial records. I helped the office manager when things got busy. I was terminated by this HOMOPHOBE dentist because he thinks I have AIDS. I missed a couple of work days for some medical tests. Although my test for HIV test came back positive, I have no other symptoms that will impact my work. There is no State or local law prohibiting persons with HIV to work in the health professions. I demand my job back and am willing to negotiate the amount of pay I lost for the two months that I was without work.


Leonard. My name is Leonard Maxwell and I’m pissed. Recently I hired Mark Markey to build a new 8,000 square foot warehouse. Just four measly months after the warranty was up a major water leak developed. Upon excavating the slab to make repairs, it was determined that a large diameter nail had been lodged in a copper pipe which leaked as the nail rusted away. I feel as if Mark is pushy and rushed me through the construction, and he should pay for the damages; basically, it was his pressure that ultimately caused the leak. My insurance company can cover all but $2,000 of Mark’s claim but my fear is, since there have been other claims against me this year my insurance company might cancel my policy. I really want to settle this without contacting my insurance company or the Contractor Licensing Board.


Tom. My name is Tom Martinez and I am 16 years old. I feel overwhelmed with this whole situation. Joe and I have not gotten along ever since junior high school. Joe is the type of person that walks around campus like he’s totally macho, and he insults people as if he does not care about anyone else but himself. BASICALLY, HE’S A PIPSQUEAK!!!. I feel as if someone needed to show him that he’s not so macho, and I also wanted to prove to my friends that I wasn’t a wimp. My parents totally don’ get it! I hate how they are pushing this. They’re making it such a BIG deal and making it seem like it’s all about them. I just want this whole thing to go away so that my parents won’t bother me and add more pressure to my stressful life.


Allison. My name is Allison Anderson, and things between me and my ignorant neighbor, Beth, have been pretty crappy lately. I feel insulted and harassed by her actions. She must have some fetish as she is constantly thumping on the wall we share; it’s getting SO ANNOYING! Once she hit it so hard that some of my pictures fell off. Also, I am an aerobics instructor and she has disrupted many of my practice times with her loud disturbances. She mumbled something about not liking my aerobics music. One night she even had the indecency to bang on my wall with the heel of her shoe. I feel threatened and harassed by her childish actions and do not want my aerobics career to be jeopardized. Ideally, I would like to come to a solution or else one of us will have to move.


Maya. My name is Maya Latanski and I am 12 years old. I am the daughter of “old world” Armenian parents. Right now, I feel like my father is always down my throat for whatever I do. I have many pressures and stress in school. Like it’s hard enough that my school has so many rules, I don’t need my father to stress me out with his strict and stupid rules. He doesn’t understand that the more he treats me like a little girl, the more he pushes me away. My friends are like the ONLY people I can turn to right now. They all have cool American parents who understand them–it’s just not FAIR! My father thinks that his culture is the best and doesn’t want me to act American. I know that it was wrong of me to, like, you know, ditch school and go to the mall, but that was only a couple of times, I never knew that police can write tickets for not going to school. I feel my grades have gone down because of all my stress with my parents. I just want my father to understand me and my situation a little better and have him act more supportive and less strict with all his rules.


Denise. My name is Denise Daniels. I live next to Edith in a cheap apartment complex. The walls are really thin. Edith’s complaints are appalling and absurd. I have people over quite a bit, that’s because I enjoy company and like to visit with my friends. I will admit that my voice is a bit louder that the average female, but Edith even complains when I shut my cupboards and talk on the phone. There have been instances where Edith called the police on me and claimed that I had illegal drugs in my apartment. It was not true. What gives her the right to assume that I have drugs–that’s just ridiculous and do not deserve this one bit! Not only am I mad about her accusing me of having drugs, but she is disrespectful. Just recently she got frustrated and banged on our common wall with a baseball bat. She needs anger management. I demand respect from my neighbor and just want to come to a solution for the both of us because clearly being neighbors like this is not working out!


Jackie Omana

Jackie Omana is a senior in the Department of Human Communication Studies at California State University, Fullerton. She is a student in a mediation course. Her current research interest is in the area of parental loss and willingness to communicate. She supports her education as a part-time administrative assistant for… MORE >


Norman R. Page

Norman Page is a volunteer mediator through the Institute for Conflict Management, a subsidiary of St. Vincent de Paul, Santa Ana, California.  He mediates community, small claims and civil harassment disputes.  Dr. Page is professor of Human Communication at California State University, Fullerton where he teaches mediation. MORE >

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