By: Alicia Kuin, IAM Fellow & Ben Picker, IAM Distinguished Fellow
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Words are the smallest elements that generate significant meaning. But to what extent do the words we use as mediators matter? At the recent International Academy of Mediators’ conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, we facilitated a session with an experienced group of mediators and tackled that very question. The focus of the session was whether words matter in a mediation and what words enhance communication, change minds, bring about resolution, and inspire.

In order to answer our question of whether or not words matter, we debunked the Mehrabian Rule, which posits that communication is comprised of 55% body language, 38% tone, and 7% words. This “rule” is based on two limited studies conducted in artificial contexts, neither of which apply to communication in mediation. The studies are highly discredited and the discussion that took place with our group of expert mediators helps to demonstrate why.

We asked the group what is the most negative word in the English language? The group was quick to respond with the word ‘No.’ The word ‘No’ elicits anger, produces stress chemicals and causes minds to shut down. On the other end of the spectrum, we inquired about the most positive words in the English language that engage and encourage reciprocity. Some of the responses included the use of a person’s name and the words ‘opportunity,’ ‘free,’ ‘instantly,’ ‘new,’ ‘choice,’ ‘value,’ and ‘solution.’

We then asked the mediators what words do you use to prime parties for the mediation process? The responses included ‘efficient,’ ‘fair,’ ‘listen,’ ‘partner,’ ‘together,’ ‘trust,’ ‘appreciate,’ ‘willingness,’ ‘result,’ ‘path,’ ‘future’ and ‘please.’ This discussion was fascinating, as some of the words that we learn to use during mediation training were not included on the list. Words that are part of many mediator’s scripts, such as ‘neutral,’ ‘impartial’ and ‘compromise,’ have come to be viewed as negative by parties who are regular users of the process. Even the word ‘mediator’ can pigeonhole the process and elicit the idea that parties are going to have to compromise or give something up. To avoid this, many mediators are referring to themselves as ‘facilitators,’ ‘advisors’ or ‘negotiation coaches.’

It is true that as mediators we are also negotiation coaches. When asking the group what words they coach parties not to use during a caucus, the responses included ‘no, because,’ ‘weaknesses’ and ‘demand.’ Instead, parties are encouraged to say ‘yes, but,’ ‘yes, and,’ ‘strengths,’ ‘offer,’ ‘thank you’ and of course if needed, ‘sorry.’ As we know, ‘sorry’ is only an effective word if it comes across genuinely, which may require additional coaching.

At this point in the discussion we drew on the IAM conference’s theme of Enlightenment to inspire one another to use words that are perspective shifting, culturally appropriate, gender positive, and inclusive. When asking the participants if there are words specific to their areas of practice that can come across as negative or positive, we discussed the proper terminology for ‘indigenous peoples’ (which varied due to the international nature of our group), as well as the importance of using ‘gender neutral’ pronouns. We talked about how when words are being used to describe a person or group, the wrong word can be perceived as an attack on their identity. If this happens you can lose a person’s or group’s trust and the process can become derailed. As mediators our golden rule is to do no harm, and with that in mind we have an obligation to be inclusive and culturally fluent practitioners.

The last question we discussed was how can we aspire to not let words become a passive part of our practice? Well, we can draw inspiration from our experiences, from other practitioners in different fields and from different backgrounds, and from movements such as Black Lives Matter, Me Too and Time’s Up. We also need to remember the power of curiosity and asking people what the right word to use may be or if we are unsure of how a word may have impacted someone. In William Ury’s most recent book, Getting to Yes with Yourself, he talks about self-observation, which psychologists refer to as ‘Me-search.’ Observing and reflecting upon the words we use as mediators with a spirit of inquiry can support us in building upon and enhancing our personal lexicon. This in turn will allow us to be more ‘effective’ and ‘valued’ negotiation ‘advisors.’

© 2018 Alicia Kuin & Ben Picker

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