Building Rapport is an Essential Skill for Successful Mediators

Art of Connecting
Art of Connecting

“The key to mediator success lies in developing rapport with the disputing parties,” concluded Professor Stephen Goldberg of the Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago.

Professor Goldberg surveyed mediators and disputants over a number of years to determine what makes mediators successful and unsuccessful.  Establishing rapport and confidence is one of three keys.  The others are “process skills,” which include persistence, patience, timing, and use of mediator tools, and “evaluative skills,” which include substantive knowledge and risk assessment.

Building a relationship of trust and confidence is important so that (1) The parties will disclose more information, which the mediator can use to facilitate resolution, and (2) The mediator earns credibility to offer suggestions later.

Professor Goldberg listed what he called “confidence-building attributes.” They include the following: friendly, empathic, likable, respectful, caring, wants to find solutions, integrity, honest, nonjudgmental, professional, and smart.

Okay, so how does a person make others feel that way? How do people build rapport?

Authors Claire Raines and Lara Ewing wrote a book containing their answers to that question, The Art of Connecting: How to Overcome Differences, Build Rapport, and Communicate Effectively with Anyone.  They focused on what works across cultures and in different contexts by examining how a few “masters of connection” succeed.

Raines and Ewing discovered five “core principles” of connecting.

There’s always a bridge.  People skilled at connecting believe they can find some common ground with others, no matter how different they appear on the surface.  Finding common ground is not always easy. It takes keen observational skill to pick up on cues and respond.  The masters experiment and adjust to feedback, verbal and nonverbal.

Curiosity is key. Raines and Ewing believe it is impossible to be both curious and judgmental at the same time. The masters approach people with genuine openness and curiosity.

What you assume is what you get.  Masters of connection approach each person assuming that the person is good, has important things to say, and can make valuable contributions.  Positive expectations contribute to successful outcomes, they assert.

Each individual is a culture. We hear much about cultural competence and how to relate to one culture or another.  However, masters of connection avoid such prejudice and treat each person as if he or she were a unique culture.  Do not blindly apply rules for how to relate to Middle Eastern males, for example.  First, find out a little more about the person: how has his education and life experiences shaped his beliefs.  How does he present himself today and how is he responding?

No strings attached. Good connectors do not expect reciprocity.  They are hospitable, eager listeners but do not expect that same from the other.

Mediation training instructs mediators to build trust and rapport through a formulaic listening approach known as VECS: Validate, Empathize, Clarify and Summarize. VECS provides a very rough method to make people feel heard.  However, because each person differs, any formulaic approach is bound to fail some of the time.

By contrast, the “formula” of the masters is to look and listen for clues of what each individual needs.  Once the master has a hypothesis, he or she tests. Does the other respond to a smile with a smile or with a nervous look away?  Does the other need to settle in with chitchat or does she want to get down to business?  If the other does not respond positively to one approach, the master tries a different approach.

Masters of connection must also be aware of their own reactions. Are our judgments of the other getting in the way?  Are we responding with positive facial expressions and body language or with frowns and fidgets?  Are we listening or interrupting? Or involuntarily sighing? Are we criticizing or inquiring and praising?

In conclusion, empirical data indicate that building good rapport is an important determinant of whether a mediation will succeed or fail. Building good rapport is not an accident. It is an art that mediators and others can develop through effort and practice.

Jeff Merrick, 503-665-4234

© 2014