Setting the mood... in the mediation room
Setting the mood... in the mediation room - Understanding tone in conflict resolution.
Words cannot express quite a lot of feelings, whereas a noise or tone or drone or sound, an accordion falling down a staircase, can somehow capture an emotion much better.John Lydon
Introduction - All about the bass
Just like “Tone is everything in TV” (Ryan Murphy), tone is everything in conflict coaching, mediation and facilitation. Mediators and parties in conflict need to be aware of their emotions during mediation. Without emotional self-awareness, parties may inadvertently become even more upset in a process as a result of the emotions of someone else. Worse, is that a mediator, coach or facilitator might mimic a parties emotions without realizing it, reinforcing negative interactions and conflict escalation and allowing the parties to challenge their boundaries. Setting the tone in mediation impacts the parties, the mediator and can make or break a high-quality mediation process. Indeed, it's all about the bass.
Theory - setting the mood in mediation:
Managing boundaries to impact the tone
Emotional contagion theory posits that the emotional state of someone can impact others around them.[i] This means that the sad feelings of a party in mediation might lead to feelings of sadness in another, even if the other person had already managed those emotions. Fortunately, a positive and hopeful attitude toward the situation, or a feeling of calm might infect others. Have you heard someone with infectious laughter? This might be an example of a more positive emotional contagion.
The same theory also applies to the mediator, whose emotional tone might be used to influence parties in a positive way, or unintentionally in a negative way, reinforcing destructive conflict. If the mediator is unaware of this impact, they might also come across with a more heavy emotional demeanor, diminishing the likelihood of a more future-focused and hopeful attitude and tone. This is an example of poor maintenance of boundaries.
Changing how we communicate to impact the tone in mediation
We often refuse to accept an idea merely because the tone of voice in which it has been expressed is unsympathetic to us.Friedrich Nietzsche
Communications accommodation theory posits that people subconsciously meet the patterns of others around them.[ii] This can be used as a tool for mediators, coaches and facilitators to help in the resolution of a conflict. Say a divorce mediator models positive communication that encourages conflict resolution, the parties might be aided in fixing their relationship. The same goes for helping parties feel comfortable:
“If a disputant has a slow rate of speech or uses dramatic gestures, the mediator might regulate his or her own rate of speech or size of gesture to be similar to the disputant – creating feelings of kinship and comfort for the disputant.”[iii]
Unfortunately, if a mediator lacks self-awareness, this can have a negative impact on parties. In divorce mediation, if the mediator becomes agitated by one of the parties, they might unintentionally start to communicate more abruptly. This can serve to further escalate a difficult situation. In workplace mediation, rushed communication with parties might only increase their feelings of stress and discomfort, making conflict resolution more challenging.
In communications accommodation theory, there are 3 common patterns in someone’s communication behaviour, which include;
Convergence occurs when someone adapts to another person's communication behaviours, such as mimicking eye contact, tone, pace of speaking and more.[iv] Convergence can be both positive or negative. If it is perceived as genuine behaviour, then it might be thought of a positive.[v] As mentioned above, convergence can be negative if it leads to conflict escalation.
Divergence “occurs when communicators purposefully accentuate a difference in communication patterns in an effort to separate their own identity.”[vi] Sometimes divergence is used purposefully to increase someone's power in relation to someone else. Mediators might do this unintentionally when they use jargon with clients who have no training in conflict resolution.[vii] Parties might also use divergent communication with each other in a mediation session, in order to gain power over the other. This happens in destructive relationships.The tone did take on a negativity that I didn't like and when you make the decision to go the other way as we did it very directly had an impact, you can see it with the tracking.Scott McCallum
Overaccommodation takes place when someone overcompensates or overadapts to another person's communication style. You’ve seen this in movies when someone speaks in an exaggeratedly slow and loud tone, and the other responds with frustration as they would have heard the message clearly. Overacommocation can be perceived as insulting, and might lead to conflict escalation. This might be common in divorce mediation cases, where parties may use overaccomodation to trigger one another.
Using listening to improve the tone
Tone is often the most important part of a conversation - and listening is so much more important than what you say.Hoda KotbWhen I spoke, I was listened to; and I was at a loss to know how I had so easily acquired the art of commanding attention, and giving the tone to the conversation.Adelbert von Chamisso
Be sure to visit our blog that describes active listening for more information on this critical aspect of improving the tone.
Using music and songs about conflict to improve the tone
As goofy as it sounds, I try to sing in the morning. It's hard both to sing and to maintain a grouchy mood, and it sets a happy tone for everyone - particularly in my case, because I'm tone deaf, and my audience finds my singing a source of great hilarity.Gretchen Rubin
We are not telling you that you should play music during mediation. This can be distracting to the parties. However, music during breaks in the mediation might help parties relax – breaking the tension. Ask each party their favourite artist, and then play each of their favourite songs during a break. Be sure to check out our top 10 conflict songs in 2014 for some ideas of songs related to conflict.
Creating a supportive environment to improve the tone
The higher the moral tone, the more suspect the speaker.Mason Cooley
Mediators must manage the environment to reduce conflict escalation and improve the likelihood of conflict resolution. Here are some things to look out for, and things to encourage in a conflict coaching, mediation or facilitation session:
- Be accepting of parties in all of their diversity, avoid judgement and be patient
- Help each person express their ideas with confidence
- Take self-leadership, rather than avoiding accountability
- State your needs when confronting others, rather than speaking in generalizations
- Avoid passive aggressive and aggressive behaviour
- Show interest in ideas shared by other parties, even if they might not be feasible
- Using active listening to help each person feel supported and heard
- Help parties manage their anger effectively during mediation
- Encouraging parties to take small steps to build trust
Using your opening statement to improve the tone
If you don't set the tone for the day, the devil will set it for you.Joel Osteen
In addition to the other important aspects of an opening statement, mediators should start their session with a positive, hopeful and forward-looking statement. They should coach parties to develop a similarly positive opening statement before the session. An opening statement that comes across as genuine, and is convergent with the other party’s identity, can help lead to conflict resolution.
We are not won by arguments that we can analyze, but by tone and temper; by the manner, which is the man himself.Louis D. Brandeis
In the field of conflict resolution, tone is everything. As they say in film, “All you can really do as director is sort of set a tone.” (Adam McKay). The same goes for coaches, mediators and facilitators. Mediators must ensure that they avoid emotional contagions, and that parties are not ‘infected’ by someone's negative emotional reactions, as these may lead to destructive conflict escalation.
To effectively resolve conflict, mediators and parties must modify the way they communicate, so that parties mimic the communication patterns of each other, without making them feel uncomfortable or insulting one another. A mediator can also positively impact the tone by modeling healthy communication, facilitating a supportive environment and drafting (and helping parties draft) effective opening statements. With the right tone, parties can be inspired to listen to one another and find ways to resolve their conflicts.
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|Setting the mood... in the mediation room|
[i] Essential Skills for Mediators, page 37 citing Hatfield, Cacioppo, and Rapson (1993).
[ii] Essential Skills for Mediators, page 37
[iii] Essential Skills for Mediators, page 37.
[iv] Essential Skills for Mediators, page 37.
[v] Essential Skills for Mediators, page 37 citing West & Turner, 2000. Introducing communication theory: Analysis and application. New York: McGraw Hill.)
[vi] Essential Skills for Mediators, page 37.
[vii] Essential Skills for Mediators, page 37.