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Rhythm Analogy: Drumming & Mediation

Mediation has its own pace. it can move fast or needs to be slowed down. It can flow smoothly or can be unexpectedly interrupted. It can be stopped or even terminated. It is a performance and a game, where spontaneity and improvisation contribute to the flow as much as the strategical and premeditated maneveurs executed by the parties and occasionally by mediators. Therefore, mediation has its own rhythm but also suffers from arrythmia. It has the beat and can be synchronized but it can also be disorganized, disoriented or out of sync.

Musical analogy is not new to mediation process. Kenneth Cloke gives us an idea how such analogy might be applied. He begins with a certain realization that there is a parallel or analogy between music and mediation.[i]

It has since occurred to me, sometimes in the middle of a mediation, that even the most prosaic conflicts have a subtle musical quality about them. In the first place, there is the explicit music of the parties, reflected in their contrasting tempos, pitches, inflections, timbres and tone of voice. There are solos as individuals hold forth, duels as they discuss, and dissonance as they argue and interrupt each other.

Next, he points to the inter-play between libretto (lyrics) and music, and the inter-play between different instruments, to achieve harmony and to orchestrate (coordinate) and direct the flow of mediation, making sure that the instruments are in tune and in unison when musicians play together. At this juncture, we can remind ourselves that our approach to mediation through the prism of game, play, and performance makes the analogy between music and mediation quite valuable.

There is the interplay of score and libretto, moving toward a single harmonious and satisfying finale. Throughout, there is a mediator, trying to orchestrate and harmonize the diverse instruments and tones and blend them into a single symphonic whole.

He continues with the emotional at-tune-ment, which should remind us, why a tune, a piece of music, resonates with a particular mood and emotional state.

These observations help us recognize that every emotion, attitude, and mood in conflict possesses a signature frequency and amplitude, a unique rhythm that is communicated as much through tone of voice, pitch, pace, and timing as through verbal description.

Finally, he speaks about the rhythm of mediation. 

It is clear that different musical rhythms evoke radically different moods. There are rhythms of control as with marching music, rhythms of exploration as with jazz, rhythms of sadness as with blues, and rhythms of devotion as with gospel. Each style of music evokes a different set of emotions, memories and spiritual or energetic response. 

Music is with us from the beginning of time. It has a particular significance for young and old people as much today as it had in the past. People remember a particular song when they make love for the first time. They remember a piece of music, when they become sentimental or nostalgic. Some individuals chose a particular song to be played at the funeral of their love ones. (A daughter might say, ‘This was the favorite song of my mother.’)

Focusing on rhythm in a greater detail might be useful.  We will therefore turn our attention to the art and history of drumming.[ii] We will use the analogy between rhythm and mediation, and at the end we will offer some examples of conversations between participants in mediation, to demonstrate the utility of this analogy.

Regardless, which part of the world we visit, drumming and rhythm manifest certain universal features. First, there is sound. One must be able to hear the music, that is, one must hear the rhythm. One then can move with the rhythm. It is not a surprise that we like to say, music can move our souls and our bodies.  Another feature is the organization of rhythm. Drummers like to speak about keeping the time, and time, as we mentioned previously when we described the temporal structure of mediation, has its sequential progression (flow and nexus), but also its repetitive, cyclical patterns. Measures, meters, and beats are the words which are firmly established in the drummers’ vocabulary. These words well describe the rhythmical nature of music and can be useful when we describe the rhythm of mediation. To many performers living in the remote, isolated parts of our planet who are not familiar with musical notations (codification and conventions for writing and communicating different forms of music), rhythm is a natural thing. They feel it, they breath it, and they play it with or without any musical education. Some people got the rhythm, others do not have any. And yet, there is something what humans shares and have in common. It is the rhythm of their hearts. Heartbeat is common to all of us. We might not pay attention to it, unless something unusual happens. In the language of cardiology, irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia points to the disfunction of heart, the vital organ for our lives. Here, vitality intersects with our existence and consequentially co-existence with each other.

Heart has many symbolic connotations, from a brave heart, to heartlessness, or the purity of heart and heart-to-heart conversations.  Mediators, therapists, and even politicians talk about changing people’s hearts and minds. The heartbeat, regular or irregular reminds us, that not only we all have something in common, it also draws the comparison with conflict. Common or shared interests, common sets of believes or common experiences are essential for any conflict or dispute resolution. The regular rhythm can suddenly speed up or slow down. And as we said, just like mediation, it can get interrupted and can terminate. We all are familiar with im-pass-e and often to overcome impasse, a person needs the by-pass surgery, so to speak. Without avoiding conflict, we can by-pass and sur-pass (transcend) it, when we find a solution to it.  If an artery is blocked, there is no flow of blood to the heart. So, the parties with the help from a mediator try to find another artery or pass-age to ‘get to yes’.

Heartbeat is ubiquitous and pulsating. It can bring about an excitement which represent the best but also the worse in humanity. The pulse changes and its tempo can go down when people are bored, lethargic, passive, and uninspired. It can go up when people are angry with each other, when they are fearful of each other and they sense danger and discomfort, regardless if they are in the close proximity from one another, or they imagine the threat coming to them from a faraway place, possibly disturbing their inner and outer peace. The pulse goes up when people are in love or they have passion for a certain creative, meaningful activity, so very important to them. They have the heart in it. A musician can play with a great dexterity and technical skill, but if his or her heart is not in it, passion for music is diminished and the purpose of such activity is diminished alongside.  Heartbeat is an elemental rhythm. It reminds us, that neither our existence or our co-existence can be without it. Therefore, we need to listen to our own heart and the heart of others. Using the words of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [iii]

We are particularly sensitive to the rhythm of the drums and bass, the best on which rock music rests, and which some contend is supposed to remind the listener of the mother’s throbbing heart first heard in the womb.

The art of Drumming: Analogy

Analogy is one of many important elements incorporated into the theory of argumentation and rhetoric.[iv] It can be quite simplistic or quite complex. It has some logical features but also imaginative ones. It offers some form of likeness and comparison. It often can be used as a parallel. We will spend much more time with analogies later, when we will try to use them as the tools of translating or illuminating distinct experiences for the participants in mediation, who live in different social-cultural environs, and who have experiences which share a very little, if any common ground. The imaginary aspect of analogy allows for creative comparisons. Yet, stretching imagination too far might be detrimental to the usefulness of an analogy. It can be extrapolated to the extent, that it loses its appeal and potency. Nevertheless, analogies are used often by those practitioners who try to bridge different experiential and imaginative worlds, helping humans cross the boundaries of their own experiences and the limitations of their thinking and imagination. Drumming and rhythm is one of the analogies, which can help mediators and the participants in mediation to cross those boundaries and extend or surpass the scope of such limitations.     

Just as mediation, drumming incorporates many layers important to our being. It involves our bodies to great extent. The movement of the body co-exists with the movement of a musical piece. Breathing and the coordination of body parts are essential components of the physicality of drumming. Being in a good physical shape is a requirement necessary to sustain a performance.  A tired drummer does not manifest a vigor and energy, or even subtlety, so important to the maintenance of the role drummers play, when they play with others and sometimes by themselves. The body language is the key. For mediators the ability to ‘read’ body language of others and to manifest certain postures (self-presentations) of calm, confidence, control, sympathy and empathy is tied to their own bodies. Facial expressions and physical positioning and movements of bodies say a lot about peoples’ moods, feelings, discomforts, or things people want to hide. The sensations of pain and pleasure are located in our bodies. Physiological signs, often not available during face-to-face encounters during mediation, are the tools which can be used to measure and determine, if certain feelings are authentically expressed or pre-rehearsed and staged. Heartbeat and pulse are good examples. During performances or during an encounter with other people, humans can hide their insecurities, anger, or nervousness.  Yet, heartbeat or pulse, which accompany these types of pretenses, can be good measuring sticks and indicators, suggesting what could be happening behind the mask or under the sur-face.

Next to physicality, personality and temperament must be incorporated, when we compare drumming with mediation. The mixture of individual features and traits belonging to a distinct person, his or her character, must be combined with a typical features and traits (think about types, sorts, kinds of people), which might well describe characteristics of a typical drummer or mediator. What makes them tick, what keeps them going, what are the pre-dispositions but also influences, what predisposes them to choose a career and become a drummer or a mediator?  What kind of rhythms their lives exhibited and what temperament a person has to possess to pursue the path (the way of life), to make a human existence a meaningful and purposeful one.

Social aspect of drumming and mediation cannot be neglected. Drummers and mediators are performers. They play certain roles (professional, private, and public) and characters when they play (or rehearse) together with others or they play by themselves. Both, drummers and mediators are socialized into their distinct environments and milieus and consequently, they sociate or associate with others, sometimes voluntarily, when they choose who they want to be associated with, sometimes involuntarily, out of necessity, and sometimes by chance, when they find themselves in situations and surroundings by the pure accident. The role drummers can play, are for example, a leader, an accompanist, a supporting cast, or the combination of all three, depending where the music takes them. Same goes for mediators. There are times when a mediator must take on a leadership position, be assertive and in control. On other occasions, a mediator stays back or retreats and lets parties, their representatives, and other participants in mediation to take charge. That is, the mediator is in the background (rather than in the foreground), he or she plays a supporting role and waits for the right movement to intervene, if needed. He or she can accompany the parties on the journey toward resolution, by assisting or even persuading parties to ponder certain options and to make ‘right’ decisions.

Finally, cultural layer must be accounted for. Drumming, just as mediation has its history and the places of origin. There are two cultural traditions, which profoundly contributed to the art of drumming. African tradition is one. This tradition can be found in different regions and localities, all around the globe. Many rich and highly sophisticated drumming cultures, from India and Latin America to United States can be traced back to African continent. The second important tradition can be traced to East Asia. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean drumming have its unique, collectivistic features and social functions. Interestingly, these two traditions did not intersect for a very long time and grew independently of each other. Mediation also has its long history. Confucian tradition, as we learned in the previous chapter, incorporated mediation practice into its overall world-view. Being attuned and to be sensitive to cultural distinctions (traditions) is essential to mediation practice.  We must be aware of our own cultural background as mediators, as much as we need to pay attention to distinct cultural backgrounds of the partakers in mediation process.  We might ask the question. Being an emigrant in the culturally most diverse country in the world (the country of immigrants), does it enhance ability to be a better mediator with the capacity to relate to different kinds of people, or the unique cultural background predisposes us to certain prejudices, we are not fully aware of? The answer might be somewhere in between.


 There are four limbs which enable drumming. For a long time, mostly two of them were utilized, the hands. With the technological advancement of drum set, four limbs, including legs, were able to participate in the new, innovative forms of drumming. The drum set did not guarantee, that the way of drumming would be more complex and more adventurous, but it provided possibilities, previously unimaginable. Just as the parties involved in conflict or dispute often cannot imagine any solution to their predicament. In a unique way, four limbs are to some extent independent of each other. They have certain freedom and autonomy. At the same time, they must coordinate with each other, to follow and establish certain rhythmic patterns. There is an element of synchronicity which dictates how those patterns are created and followed at the same time. We might say, that four limbs represent an internal tension (comparable to internal conflicts) within, but also an attempt to find harmony and to integrate distinct sounds and beats making the repetitive, rhythmic patterns possible.

To make it more interesting, drummers are often the integral parts of greater units or ensembles. Be it, an orchestra, a group (folk, jazz or rock bands), or drumming collectives, such as Japanese Taiko performers. Musicians play together and also next to each other or parallel to each other. They follow the score, they follow each other and occasionally, they improvise, if a specific type of music allows for it. Here an external conflict can show up at any time. Specifically, when the piece of music allows for distinct interpretations by different members of a group and leads to the conflict of interpretations.


In psychology, the theory of personality occupies a special place. One of the pioneers and prominent thinkers, Gordon W. Allport, looks at personality as the concept which accounts as much for the formation, (that is, for certain fixed and stable elements) of personality, as for those characteristics, which allow for a personal growth or a personal decline. He looks at personality as a self-contained dynamic and developing system and he uses two key words to describe personality, becoming and proprium. Therefore, his small book is called, BECOMING: Basic Considerations for a Psychology of Personality, where he writes

The proprium includes all aspects of personality that make for inward unity.[v]

It is fairly customary for laymen as much as for the expert community of psychologists to define others as having or possessing some kind of personality. It can be nice or unpleasant personality. It can be described as simple or complex, normal or abnormal (a crazy person), warm or distant, driven or boring, intelligent or stupid, self-delusional or conniving, indecisive or assertive, domineering, timid, or accepting and tolerant of others.  All these descriptions (and many other) serve as the tools, which enable us to relate to others, to avoid them or to embrace them, to predict their behavior and to evaluate or judge their conduct. They are also used by individuals to evaluate and describe themselves. Who they like to be, who they want or don’t want to be like (self-actualization). Their aspirations, their inspirations, their strivings.  Their ability and willingness or inability (helplessness) to change.

The personality traits, the character and temperament, all these elements are included in daily conversations, all around the world. They are precursors of close or hostile relationships, conflicts or solidarity among people and groups. They are impacted and determined by what people do for a living or in their spare time. Their personalities and their predispositions lead to the merger of their personalities and their identities, always sedimented, always in flux.

What kind of traits drummers and mediators share, if any, will be left to the readers.

Social Aspect

Social status, group and tribal affiliations, the social roles people play, institutions, all of them tell us something about relationships and associations individuals are the part of and create for themselves. For drummers, it is the bunch of other musicians they are surrounded by, they play together with, and they socialize with, when they tour or rehearse. Who they contact, if they are looking for a gig or they want to work with on the next project. Promoters, talent agents, other types of artists (dancers, movie makers who need studio musicians and a composer to write a score), form social circles, drummers typically move in. They might be also the members of labor union or a trade association.

What interests us is, how the importance of rhythm, the social role, and personality come together when we try to build or use our analogy. There are drummers who are ‘heavy hitters’, who like a strong beat and accentuate it with high intensity. Rock music emphasizes powerful beats and rhythms and many drummers confess using such patterns, to help them releasing and redirecting their excessive energy or aggression. The way a stick or hand hits the surface of a drum, the power and loudness of the sound and the repetition which builds up the atmosphere and mood, can translate to almost a hypnotic trance, which certain type of music can invoke so well.  Then there are drummers who are subtle in their expression, using soft touches on cymbals and other pieces of a drum set.  Unique types of drummers can do both.  Some drummers like a multitude of sounds and patterns and they indulge in complexities, using many types of drums to get as many distinct combinations of sounds as possible. The more complicated tune, the happier they are. Is there then a correlation between the personality of a drummer, the role he or she plays being a part of an ensemble, and the rhythmic patterns she or he prefers?

Previously, we listed certain roles, a leader, an accompanist, a supporting cast. Drummers who see themselves as leaders, often consider themselves as the driving force of a group or ensemble. They propel others (musicians and audiences) to follow them, using pulsating and often dominant rhythms they create. They can produce a recognizable sound and establish a signature, so to speak, of a group. Often, composers write the pieces of music with a leadership role of drummer in their minds. Sometimes, the drummer is a composer and a bandleader. Taking on the role of a supporting cast, drummer takes a back seat and lets others to showcase their instrumental or vocal gifts. A blues drummer is a good example. Accompanists are a special kind. They weave different rhythmic patterns into the piece of music, especially into the music which is often improvised. Just as for mediators, listening is the key. Being attuned with other musicians, feeling them and anticipating where they want to go, comes often through a lot of practicing and playing together with the same people for a considerable time. There is a certain synergy in the air, which is difficult to describe, yet strongly felt. Jazz improvisation often arouses such a quality.  Familiarity breeds comfort. Musicians are comfortable with each other, their musical expressiveness fits with the expressiveness of their companions. If their personalities match, even better. Here, mediation and drumming differ and our analogy must be addressed accordingly. Mediators are not team members, when it comes to their performance. They maintain their independence, regardless if they see themselves as impartial or multi-partial. Most of the time, they are soloists, and occasionally, co-mediators. They might meet with the participants in mediation on multiple occasions (family and divorce mediation is a good example), they might coordinate and cooperate with them, but the relationship is mostly temporal and lasts as long as the parties utilize mediation services.

Just as drummers, mediators can be leaders (in control) at certain times, and in the background on another occasions. Depending on the type of mediation, leadership role might be asked for.  An evaluative or a directive type of mediation allows mediators not only to make suggestions, they are often asked to make decisions for the parties. A facilitative type of mediation asks a mediator to play a supportive role. The mediator steps in only if necessary, like for instance when things get a bit dicey and out of control or the parties are not sure, what to do. Most of the time, a facilitator follows the parties, where they want to go. Here, the parties own the process and they make decisions. An accompanist is a flexible mediator, who know when to step in, when to take control and assert oneself. He or she often let’s parties to take charge. He or she directs. coordinates, and cooperates with the parties. He or she uses all four, in this case, symbolic limbs differently, depending who he or she deals with. Yet, the limbs also work together for the sake of a greater purpose, to get everyone on the same page and get them to ‘yes’.  The symbolism of the drummer’s limbs coincides with a rhythmic character of the mediation process.  Some people are faster in their comprehension than others. Some are emotionally more mature than others, some individuals can make decisions quickly, others cannot make decisions at all. So, the pace, the mood, and the rhythm must be adjusted with regard to every participant in mediation. It is almost like a classroom full of students with different levels of endowments, experiences, and motivation. Are there any other roles mediators and drummers share? We might think about the role of a translator, where different drummers interpret and communicate a certain piece of music differently. Mediators have a similar challenge, when they try to translate meanings, messages, and experiences to parties, who lack the ability to interpret meanings, messages, and experiences of their opponents or adversaries and to communicate with them.  Both, mediators and drummers are to some extent also technicians. They use certain techniques, when they practice their craft. For example, mediators use calming techniques when parties become too excited. Drummers use different techniques when it comes to holding drumming sticks.


African and Asian traditions of drumming remind us, that rhythm is in the hands, literally and metaphorically, of performers who use very differently shaped and produced instruments. Some of these instruments depend on making a sound by using airflow and vibration (membranophones). Some of them make sound on their own (idiophones). A good example is a cymbal. There are as many similarities as there are differences. One can compare Djembe, the most celebrated African drum, with Korean Buk, the biggest of all drums. And then compare it to a drum set, which is approximately 100 years old, and typically includes, bass drum and top hat, operated by legs. Tom drums and snare drums, operated by hands, with the help of drum sticks. Today, the drum set can also include or be replaced by electric drums. 

Drumming, in different parts of the world and in different historical periods and eras, have had performed different functions. There are many parallels between mediation and drumming we can distinguish. The intense and loud drumming signaled to a neighboring tribe, that a confrontation is ready to happen and the war between tribes is imminent. It was an attempt to demonstrate to the enemy the strength of military force symbolized by the high volume of a menacing sound. It was a form of posturing for the sake of intimidation, a sort of a psychological warfare quite familiar to mediators, when parties want to establish a dominance and show other side, what and who will they have to deal with.  Another function provided by drumming, especially in ancient times, was communication. Certain drums have a capacity to transmit sound close to 15 kilometers or 9.32 miles. Using drums to communicate between neighboring tribes was customary.  Different sounds and rhythmic patterns were used to communicate different messages. Same goes for mediation. Different drumming functions were utilized during celebrations (weddings, funerals, and births) or during rituals and ceremonies (sacrifices and invocations related to crops).  

Cultural differences, distinct traditions, and historic factors are in the forefront or in the background of almost any mediation. Paying attention to similarities and subtle differences is mandatory. To bring this home and to use our analogy, all we need to do, is to contemplate differences between collectivistic cultures and more individualistic ones. Drumming in China, Korea, and Japan is organized into ensembles where multiple players act (play) in a coordinated, prescribed manner to create a unified ‘course of action’ or a synchronized performance. In the Western world as we said, drummers can be soloists, supporting cast, accompanists, and occasionally, leaders.

Performance: Flow and Nexus

In the beginning, when we spoke about rhythm, we mentioned the importance of beat and sound, its pulse, its regularity and also irregularity (arrhythmia). When it comes to sound, dissonance is the word which can describe some form of irregularity. Later we connected drumming with war or armed conflict. Now we want to focus on the flow of performance. Flow can be smooth, but also irregular. In drumming, a regular beat (drumbeat) can be accentuated or, it can be disturbed by multiple layerings of conflicting rhythms. The word for the first phenomenon is called off-beat syncopation and is described by following words.

Technically, “syncopation occurs when a temporary displacement of the regular metrical accent occurs, causing the emphasis to shift from a strong accent to a weak accent”. “Syncopation is very simply, a deliberate disruption of the two- or three-beat stress pattern, most often by stressing an off-beat, or a note that is not on the beat.

The second phenomenon is called polyrhythm and the definition goes like this.

Polyrhythm, also called cross-rhythm, the simultaneous combination of contrasting rhythms in a musical composition. Rhythmic conflicts, or cross-rhythms, may occur within a single metre (e.g., two eighth notes against triplet eighths) or may be reinforced by simultaneous combinations of conflicting metres.[vi]

Two words stand out, disruption and rhythmic conflict. Both words can be applied to the flow of mediation, specifically to the flow of conversations among participants and mediators and to the flow of mediation process in general.

We already tied flow and improvisation to performances of mediators in the chapter called, Performance and Audiences, where we used Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s scholarly definition of flow.[vii] Here we will rely on his quite popular and more accessible book, FLOW and other sources.

When drummers use all four limbs it reminds us, that they create and follow different rhythms, just like mediators must adjust to the distinct personalities of different parties, acknowledging their uniqueness, their moodiness, their temperament, together with their comprehension and cognitive capacities.  Or, using American idiom inspired by Henry D. Thoreau[viii], different people march to the beat of a different drummer. At the same time, these differences do not prevent the possibility of optimal, seemingly effortless experiences, which can occur during drummers’ or mediators’ peak performances, displaying extraordinary fluidity.

 When asked what does he mean by flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi answered[ix]

Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.

So, the flow (or being in the zone) as it relates to performance, can be described in terms of an optimal experience. It can also be described as a sequence of events (flux) which can be understood in terms of disturbances, hick ups, interruptions, or with regard to the mediation process, communication breakdowns, where the flow might not be smooth and it might be up to the parties and the mediators to restore it. Here, the mediators’ improvisational and conversational skills and aptitude are indispensable.

Before we offer an example of the rhythmic nature of conversation, one important aspect of our analogy must be emphasized.  Our approach to mediation was described as dramaturgic or dramatist, where staging and performances play an intrinsic part. Dramaturgy and staging are also applied to musical performances which include drumming. When it comes to symphonic orchestras, for example, kettle drums are in the back and barely visible to audiences, suggesting that drummers perform the role as a supporting cast. With jazz or rock groups, staging is quite different. Drummers are quite often in the center or a little bit off center, occasionally their post is elevated, as they are hovering over other group members. In comparison, Japanese Taiko drumming is staged to demonstrate a synchronized, collective effort. Also allowing for a showmanship to dramatize the performance and make it more exciting for audiences.

 Conversational templates

We often hear a phrase; music is a universal language. Yet, we also can equate music with noise. For example, when two neighbors living next to each other hear the sound of music through the thin walls or from above. Neighborly disputes and conflicts are legendary among community mediators, from barking dogs to disturbing or loud sounds during late hours, to quarrels between husband and wife, coming from the neighboring apartment or house.

Music can be described as noise or as barely noticeable (background) sound. Elevator music (or muzak) is a good example. Neither of these types are considered and heard as a universal language, which brings people from different cultural and social backgrounds together.  Generational conflicts are great examples, where musical preferences and tastes often reveal a divide between parents and children.         

What interests us from analogical standpoint is the relationship of sound and silence applied to the communicative function of drumming and mediation. Drummers use silent pauses for a variety of purposes. People remain silent during conversations. they use silent pauses during public speeches. Many aboriginal cultures established communication practices using rhythms. African tradition of talking drums is a great example. Different pitches, different tones, and inflections have been used for centuries to exchange messages and create conversations across distant planes and territories. 

Communication is equally important to drumming and mediation. Listening to each other, musicians create an invisible bond among themselves through the inter-play of instruments and distinct or complementing sounds. The flow and the atmosphere of a musical piece can be established sometimes with the help of a conductor or a bandleader, and sometimes by the musicians themselves. Here, both orchestration and coordination become essential. Orchestration is as much the part of a drum solo as it is necessary to conduct a big ensemble or a smaller group, regardless, what kind of music (genre) is played.  Mediators are often orchestrators or conductors, who coordinate and regulate the process of mediation by providing a sense of direction. They are dramatists and also active agents (actors), who meander through and participate in daily dramas and stories provided by the adversaries, engaged in mediation. They are (or should be) a-tuned to different rhythms and to the overall flow and flux of mediation, wherever it will take them.

During conversations individuals sometimes talk and sometimes they remain silent, listening carefully to others. They take turns and occasionally, they talk at the same time. There are similarities when it comes to drumming. Drummers play alongside other musicians and at the same time they must listen to the them, just as they are listened to. Listening and playing happens simultaneously. It allows for synergy and synchronicity. Conversations can be occasionally compared to a duet. Specifically, in Indian classical music, two drums or drummers can be engaged in a duet or conversation. Tabla players and mridangam players occasionally take turns, showcasing their extraordinary rhythmic skills. In our global world, there is a great opportunity to mix and fuse together musical styles and traditions.  The word fusion applies as much to music as it can apply to mediation.[x] In the beginning of 70-ties, the word fusion was used to describe the merging of rock and jazz idioms. Mediation can take a hint and apply it to the fusion of (distinct) perspectives or positions, parties bring to the table.

After everything what was said, we can try to apply our analogy to specific conversations.

Opening statements are mostly uneventful instances, especially, if parties already know what to expect. Most of the time it is a monologue performed by a mediator, here and there interrupted by standard questions such as, how the parties want to be addressed (first or last name), if they participated in mediation before, or if they have any questions before the process begins. At this stage, the flow is fairly even, Occasionally, for some participants, it can be too slow, if they heard the same thing over and over again. Those who are new to mediation, listen attentively. The rhythm is steady, tempo does not change dramatically. The attempt to create a friendly atmosphere and the rapport with the parties is met with question marks by some participants, having internal thoughts such as, can I trust this person, will she be able to relate to me, and is he competent. Following is the example, where all participants are together in the room.

(M)ediator: Good morning and thank you for coming and trying to resolve this matter. Is everyone ready to start the process? ….. Great. In the beginning I will introduce myself, very briefly, and I would appreciate if you return a favor. Then I will describe the process and what my and your roles are. Once I finished this introduction, or as we call it, the opening statement, you will have an opportunity to ask any questions related to what I am going to say and I will answer them the best I can.

(A)ttorney: Could you please speed it up. I already explained to my client all he needs to know.

M: I sure can speed it up, but I also must be certain that the opposing side is comfortable with your suggestion.

This short exchange demonstrates monological, but also dialogical features of the initial conversation. The rhythm of the mediators is steady, intonation and pitch of his or her voice is even and calm, just like the ocean or the lake without waves, comparable to sound waves prompted by vocalization.  The flow is interrupted by the attorney’s request to up (increase) a tempo. In response, the mediator tries to keep a steady flow by maintaining an evenhanded approach.

A typical next stage of mediation is called story telling (a narrative portion), where parties and occasionally other participants (representatives or auxiliaries) tell their war or combat stories, related to their conflicts and disputes. Depending on a story-teller, the purpose and intent behind a story (to inform, to influence, to look good, to obtain sympathy, and so forth), and the manner the story is told (dramatic, factual, aggressive, pitiful) can differ to a great extent.

 (P)arty: You cannot believe what that bastard did to me. It is like a living hell. I can talk all day and it still would not spell out the misery I have to go through. Like the last week. He calls me and insists that I have to take our daughter from the ballet rehearsal because he got stuck in the meeting. It is nothing but a lie! I know what happened. He was with that woman and it makes my blood boil.  I need to catch my breath, it makes me so angry.

(M)ediator: Take your time and if you need to take a break, please let me know.

(P): Don’t tell me what to do and don’t interrupt me. If I need a break, I will take it. I don’t need your permission.

(M): I realize, that talking about this stuff brings about a lot of anger. Yet, I am here to work not only with you but with everyone else. For the sake of fairness, if you want to take a break, I need to tell the other side, that perhaps we will need more time. I would do the same thing for you, if they would ask for a break. So, I would appreciate, if you would consider what I am suggesting.

This conversational segment has strong dramatic undertones and even overtones. There is an intense tonality so typical for conversations, where distress and aggression join the forces. The party’s displeasure and anger targets not only her adversary. It is applied also to the mediator. A calming technique with an admixture of assertiveness is employed by the mediator. At this juncture, the mediator might have a question. Is this a typical feature or a personality trait manifested by the party, or an ongoing stress and the situation the party finds herself in for a considerable time, makes her lose her cool and composure.

There is a certain pitch associated with her voice, there is a nervous energy and a bad vibe, creating a tense atmosphere. There is cadence and the acceleration of a tempo happening when she speaks. She interrupts the flow of conversation and changes its rhythm. She cannot catch her breath, therefore a physiology of breathing becomes a sign of her distress. She might be a jealous kind but she also might be a belittled wife, who is right and is in the right, to address her grievances.  The conflict (arrhythmia and dissonance) regarding the relationship with her partner, might be long lasting and complex, where for example her personal anguish and the concern for her personal well-being might compete with the considerations and care for her children. Her Internal conflict commingles with the external conflict she has with her husband.

Following is a different kind of story-telling. Different style, different tone, different rhythm.

(P)arty: You know, I already resigned myself long time ago to any outcome. I just want to have it over with.  This man always wants to get his way, whatever he does. I don’t like drama too much and all I can do is to describe how things typically go between two of us. He comes home from work, typically later than I. He demands the food to be on the table, he gets angry if I am late with the cooking. He constantly criticizes the food, being not tasty enough or not warm enough. He never says thank you and after the meal he retreats to his room, switches TV on and that is what happens day after day. 

(M)ediator: It does not sound like a happy story you are telling me.  

(P): it is not. At this point I don’t have any expectations and I don’t care where my life will take me. What worries me is the impact on our children.

(M): Well, there is always a little bit of hope. I will try my best to see, what can we do to help you and your children to make things at least a little bit better. I will not promise anything but I will do everything to make that happen.

Our second example has a very different feel to it. The wife speaks slowly and in a quiet manner. She focuses on facts and even when she judges the character of her husband, she mostly uses a descriptive language without any hyperbole and derogatory labels.  She sees herself as a victim, hopeless and helpless, without too much control over her life. The rhythm of the conversation is evenly paced, tempo is fairly slow. Not too much tension is generated by the way she expresses her feelings. There are no accents, strong beats, internal or external tension. She does not like conflict, she prefers to avoid it and to accommodate others. The only internal tension she has, is the worry about her children.  The musicality of her story is filled with sadness. The manner of her storytelling, its style and rhythm, coincides with the rhythmic monotony of her life. Using up-lifting words, the mediator at the end of this conversational segment is trying to up the tempo, providing assurance and offer some hope.

Finally, the third conversation demonstrates how conversations can be disruptive, manipulated, and discoordinated. Here, the mediator becomes gradually irritated, and lacking a full self-control he or she contributes to a disorderly flow and to a diminished fluidity of conversation.

(P)aul: Now that you asked me to tell you what is happening, here it is. My supervisor George comes to my office, he sneaks behind me, looking at my screen and checking if I am working. Like few days ago. I am walking down the hall, minding my own business, when suddenly, Mary jumps right in front of me and says, “I did not see you yesterday at the Christmas party. I guess, you had better things to do than spending time with your colleagues.”  

(M)ediator: I am sorry, could you tell me who is Mary?

(P): She is George’s right hand and he uses her to spy on me. I think they have something going on. You know what I mean.

(M): Yes, George mentioned about the party, but from what I understood, Mary did not go to the party. She was not there. 

(P): I am not surprised. They are hiding their affair. Like when I was working overtime and did not get compensated for it. George was still in his office and he sent me the email that afternoon, mentioning that I have to finish a report, because he will use it next day to do his presentation. I don’t have to tell you that there was no presentation next day. Anyway, Mary shows up in my office at 7:25pm to check if I am still working. I am sure you figured out what was going on. First, they were having fun, but more importantly, George needed someone to confirm that he was working overtime, so that he can cash in. So, three things could be accomplished at the same time. Mary checks on me. They are ready to fool around under the pretense they are working after the hours and they both can get paid overtime.

(M): That’s sound strange, why it is that you would not get overtime too?

(P): That’s another story. Mary who is responsible for clocking and time attendance corrects my time-sheet, claiming that I cheat on my hours.

(M): I have to admit, that somehow all this is not making too much sense to me. What I understand is, that you claim harassment, retaliation, believing that your boss is creating a hostile environment and singles you out, while he is favoring others.

(P): You are damn right. What bothers me is that you seem not to believe me and you are siding with them.

(M): It sounds like you are accusing me of favoring the other side. Let me tell you, that I take pride in my ability to be fair and evenhanded. But what makes this even more problematic, is that instead on focusing on important issues, this all looks like diversion to me.

This conversation obviously does not have a very good rhythm, there is a lot of disruption, from a performance point of view. The party is jumping from one situation to next, without offering a consistent or a coherent story.  He is all over the place. The mediator is losing control. He or she personalizes the party’s attack. He or she is becoming a bit self-conscious, lacking enjoyment and the sense of direction where the things are going. Even if the mediator tries to hide his or her irritability, the tone of voice and the reactivity cannot hide it. The party responds accordingly with the accusation. Coordination between two people is lost, at least for a while. And the orchestration of the mediation process is lacking elegance and efficiency.

All three examples or conversational templates should alert us to a potency of the analogy between drumming, rhythm and mediation. It also should help us to realize that while this analogy seemingly pertains to the activity of drumming and mediation, focusing on three Ps, performance, practice, and process, it is the content of conversations which often determines the fluidity or a scattered character of their flow.

[i] Kenneth Cloke, THE CROSSROAD OF CONFLICT: A Journey into the Heart of Dispute Resolution, Janis Publications, 2006, pp. 198-200)

[ii] It must be acknowledged, that the author does not claim to have any specialized knowledge or even experience with drumming. And he will solely rely on his many years of experience with those genres of music where rhythm is an intrinsic and indispensable part of the musical performance.

[iii] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, FLOW: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness, Rider, The Random House Group, 2002, pp. 110-111

[iv] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, FLOW: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness, Rider, The Random House Group, 2002, pp. 110-111

[v] Gordon W. Allport, BECOMING: Basic Considerations for a Psychology of Personality, New Heaven & London Yake University Press, 1955, p. 40

[vi] Both descriptions can be found on internet. ( and

[vii] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, BEYOD BOREDOM AND ANXIETY, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1975

[viii] Following is the quote from Thoreau’s book, Walden.

  If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.

          Let him step to the music which he hears however measured or far away.

[ix] WIRED Magazine, 9/1/1996, Go with the Flow (Interview with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)

[x] One of the best examples is the group Shakti, founded 50 years ago by British jazz guitar player John McLauglin who has been playing with an assortment of brilliant Indian musicians, including tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain.


Milan Slama

Milan Slama is a practicing mediator and arbitrator in the Los Angeles area. He is a co-founder and the Board member of VBMC (Valley Bar Mediation Center). Currently he is a contractor for Los Angeles County and he also mediates for Chilren's Court.He has been associated with the LA Superior… MORE

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