When two parties come together for mediation, it’s generally after some sort of dispute, disagreement or dissatisfaction has damaged the relationship. In most cases, a level of distrust has already been established. Each of these factors causes stress, confusion and anger – hardly the best conditions in which to make thoughtful decisions that can lead to resolution.
Through the process of mediation, however, negotiations can take place in an atmosphere of fairness and both sides can feel satisfied with the outcome. But first, trust must be established.
Advantages of Building Trust
There is no guarantee that the parties in mediation will ever truly trust each other. In many cases, there are solid reasons not to. But even individuals entrenched in mutual suspicion can come to trust a third party: the mediator.
It’s vital that mediators work to earn the faith and confidence of each party. Without the participants’ trust in both the mediator and the process of mediation, the outcome will be less than ideal – if an outcome is ever even reached.
Parties who trust in their mediators and in the process of mediation are:
More likely to share important information
Able to state their needs
More willing to give and take in negotiations
More accepting of the mediator’s actions
Better able to bridge the gaps between them
Although it’s clear that establishing trust is vital in mediation, in stressful situations, there may not be enough time to do so before negotiations fall apart. Fortunately, there are effective ways to create trust in a relatively short time.
How to Establish Trustworthiness in Mediation
Mediators can effectively create trust with the parties through the following techniques:
Create a safe environment. Make all parties feel comfortable by establishing a rapport. Getting to know each individual, and sharing common experiences and values, can be a good foundation for building trust. Be sure that each individual feels that the mediator cares about his or her concerns.
Understand the language. In order for individuals to feel trust, they must feel as if they’re being heard. Listen carefully as they speak, both to what’s being said and for any clues behind it. Cultural references or personal nuances can give insight into the person and his or her role in the relationship. Ask pertinent questions to understand each side’s perspective, needs and interests, and verify that each party has said all that needs to be said.
Embrace mistakes. Let the parties know that mistakes will occur during mediation. Explain that misunderstandings are an essential part of the learning process and an opportunity to work toward reaching an understanding.
Maintain credibility. A mediator’s professional reputation is generally a major source of trust. An established practice, verified credentials and third-party testimonials can go far in establishing credibility.
Monitor behavior. Trust can be built through careful behavior – and lost very quickly through careless behavior. Treating each party equally and respectfully is paramount. Asking open-ended questions can defuse defensiveness, as will an effort to avoid judgment, blame and authoritarian behavior.
Manage the process. Ensure that each party understands the mediation process and that the mediator has nothing to gain from the outcome. Demonstrate neutrality and allow each party to discuss issues with no interruptions. Protect all participants from threatening behavior or language, abuse, intimidation and disrespect.
Trusting the Mediator
Through these techniques, any mediator can foster trust – even among opposing parties with a high level of mutual dislike. In that way, all parties can participate in the negotiation process and reach successful outcomes through mediation.
Dean Vella writes about leadership and negotiations on behalf of University Alliance, a facilitator of leadership and management programs online, and conflict resolution training.