Rapport Comes First

By — on / Conflict Resolution

How is it that mediators – who themselves lack any power to impose a solution – nevertheless often lead bitter disputants to agreement? Substantive expertise helps, as does keen analytic skill.

According to a recent survey by Northwestern University law professor Stephen Goldberg, veteran mediators believe that establishing rapport is more important than employing specific techniques and tactics.

To gain parties’ trust and confidence, rapport must be genuine: “You can’t fake it,” one respondent said. Before people are willing to settle, they must feel that their interests are truly understood. Only then can a mediator reframe the problems and float creative solutions.

Goldberg’s respondents could report only their own perceptions about why they succeed, of course. A detached observer or the parties themselves might have very different explanations. Indeed, one of the tenets of mediation practice is to work subtly so that parties leave feeling as if they have reached accord largely on their own. (This strategy is meant to deepen their commitment to honor the agreement).

In an earlier study by mediator Peter Adler, his colleagues explained their success by discussing “the breakdowns, breakthroughs, and the windows of opportunities lost or found.” By contrast, participants in the same cases remembered the mediators only as “opening the room, making coffee, and getting everyone introduced.”

This research offers two lessons for negotiators – including those who must resolve disputes and make deals without the help of a third party. One is the importance of relationship building, especially in contentious situations. Some measure of trust is required before people will open up and reveal their true interests. The other is that a hallmark of an artful process is that others do not feel maneuvered or manipulated.

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