In the grand scheme of communication, gestures and body language are incredibly important.
In fact, Albert Mehrabian (1972) famously founded the “7-38-55 rule”, which breaks down the factors of communication in expressing feelings and opinions. He theorised that non-verbal body language took up the majority of overall communication with 55%, whilst 38% is based on the voice, including intonation and beat. Surprising as it might be, actual verbal language was found to only count for the remaining 7%1.
As a result, if you ignore non-verbal communication and just focus on what is being said, he claimed that you would stand to lose 93% of the total information1. And, when you consider that mediation is based on good quality communication of thoughts and feelings, this is something that simply cannot happen.
As mediators, we must be aware of our own body language at all times. It plays a vital role in how we present ourselves, reinforcing our reliability, impartiality and empathy, as well as showing that we can be trusted to handle sensitive information and represent everyone’s best interests. In turn, this can also help improve the experience for the disputants.
In addition, it is also important to note that poor quality communication may be one of the initial root causes of the conflict. As such, we would hope that, by introducing a better quality of communication and providing a positive example of it, we can perhaps prevent future disputes between the participants too.
Here are some common non-verbal cues that can achieve these aims:
• Give the speaker your full attention – don’t fiddle about with a pen or spend all of your time making notes!
• Body positioning shifted towards the speaker
• Maintain eye contact
• Nodding in recognition and acceptance
• Open gestures of arms and hands
On top of being aware of ourselves, we must also be conscious of the body language shown by the participants, as well as the emotions that they are indicative of.
For example, whilst we can expect some level of anxiety due to the nature of mediation, we don’t want too much that would negatively affect the process. After all, it is one of our main roles to remove the barriers of apprehension and mistrust. Of course, we need both participants to be willing to open up, share information and work towards an outcome together.
To identify if a participant is struggling with anxiety, we may look for:
• Fidgeting and inability to sit still
• Closed off gestures, including hands clasped and arms folded
• Pale complexion
In addition to anxiety, we must also look out for signs of potential anger, another emotion that could negatively affect the mediation. If we do not adjust and deal with it accordingly, anger and rage can take over the meeting and undermine our authority as a mediator. If worst comes to worst, it can even completely destroy the mediation process, meaning that we may have to suspend or call it all off, especially if somebody might come to harm because of it.
Anger is usually easier to spot due to more obvious and apparent cues, which include:
• Redness of the face
• Clenched fists or teeth
• Entering and taking over the personal space of another participant
• Breathing becomes quicker and more shallow
To ensure that we give the best possible mediation experience, we must be able to take in all of the information made available to us, as well as putting out the right representation of ourselves.
When you consider how important body language is in good communication, our ability to manage it is a crucial skill for a mediator to have.
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1‘The Influence of Nonverbal Language on Mediation‘, Revista de Mediación Volume 8 No. 2, 2015