Five Failures of Mediation … and what Mediators Can Do About It (Part 3)

Failure to effectively communicate

The most difficult aspect of any negotiation is the part we most often take for granted. This is the ability to effectively communicate. All verbal communications involve at least three steps and each step creates the opportunity to either correctly deliver or distort the message. The three steps are simple enough.

1.           First we have to think about what we mean to say.

2.           Then we have to say it the way we mean it.

3.           Finally, the person we are speaking to has to hear it the way we intended.

These steps seem simple enough but executing them can be challenging. Consider the following:

Valerie is a nursing supervisor at a large medical center. Joanne is a relatively new employee and works under Valerie’s supervision. In passing, Valerie stops Joanne and has the following conversation:

Valerie:  “I just wanted to let you know that you’ve been doing o.k. so far. Keep it up.”

Joanne:  “What have I been doing wrong?”  

Valerie: “Nothing … you are doing well.”

Joanne: “It’s important to me to excel. What can I do to improve?”

Valerie: “Sorry … what I meant to say is that you have been doing excellent work in the short time you have been here. Keep up the good work.”

Let’s see what went wrong for Valerie.

While passing Joanne in the corridor, Valerie thought she would give a pat on the back to her new colleague. In this brief and casual communication she used the expression “o.k.” to describe Joanne’s work performance. Had she thought more about what she wanted to convey to Joanne, she might have chosen another word or expression but she first said “o.k.” and this was not really what she meant.  Joanne correctly heard what was said but it was not what Valerie intended. When Joanne asked Valerie how she could improve, it triggered Valerie’s intended message, resulting in a more positive conclusion to the brief conversation.

But what would happen if Joanne said nothing and kept on walking, with the belief that her supervisor thought she was doing just an o.k. job? Feeling that she was doing excellent work which was not being appreciated by her supervisor, Joanne may have developed resentment and anger towards Valerie. This might have developed into a future conflict with possible negative impact on the work environment. And this was just a brief conversation with a compliment as the intended outcome.

Now imagine the failure to effectively communicate in a hostile dispute between two or more parties each represented by counsel and working with a mediator. The dynamics of a simple communication gets exponentially more complicated. Generally speaking in a contentious mediation the only one who may be truly heard is the mediator. Therefore, it is vital for the mediator to model good communication skills, starting with steps one and two … thinking about what we mean to say and saying it the way we mean it. If we do this well then there is a likelihood that all parties will hear it as it was intended. The far greater challenge is communicating the disputing parties’ interests and offers to the other. I’ll save this discussion as well as the complexities of asking questions and responding to them for another time.

(Part 4 – the concluding portion of this article will be posted next week)

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