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How Rapport Can Be the Key to Unlocking Successful Mediations

Mediators are always looking for ways to bring parties together to reach settlement. Most mediators will agree that establishing rapport is the not-so-secret sauce for bringing groups together. However, that is like a mouse saying, “If I tie a bell around the cat’s head, I will always know where he is.” This article will highlight key principles regarding how mediators establish rapport with parties.

Pacing and Leading

Pacing and leading were introduced as tools for building rapport in 1975 by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in their seminal book, The Structure of Magic I: A Book About Language and Therapy. “Pacing” means matching or mirroring an attorney’s or their client’s verbal and nonverbal cues, such as their tone of voice, body language, breathing, words and beliefs. “Leading” means gently introducing new ideas, suggestions and directions that move them toward the neutral’s desired outcome, such as a change of opinion, a decision or a solution.

Whether you are pacing or leading, the key is not being insulting, patronizing or blunt. For these techniques to be effective, they have to be used with discretion. They are just like the spices in your kitchen; you don’t use all of them in every meal you prepare. You want your communication partners to notice there is something different about you, even if they cannot quite put their finger on it.

Establishing Trust

Pacing builds trust because people see you as being the same as them. After pacing, a persuader can then lead, and the subject will be comfortable following.

Pacing and leading are important because they can help you overcome resistance, build rapport and influence your communication partner in a positive and respectful way. When you pace and lead them, you are not manipulating or coercing them, but rather aligning with them and helping them see new possibilities. Pacing and leading can also help you avoid misunderstandings, conflicts and arguments, as you are showing empathy and respect for their point of view. Pacing and leading can make your conversation partner feel more comfortable, confident and open to your message.

Rephrasing and Repeating

A technique for letting your communication partner know that you are relating to them is to rephrase then repeat what you heard them say. At best, you will demonstrate your empathy and commitment to understanding their position. At worst, your partner will discover that you have not yet grasped their position, and then they will restate it.

As an example, “I must be compensated for all of my inventories” might be repeated as “I can understand why you would want to be receive just compensation from the use of your inventories.” Pacing is caring, and the old cliché holds true: “People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

A prerequisite for applying these techniques is active listening. Most people didn’t forget what you said to them; they likely never heard you. Many people are so busy thinking about how they will respond that they don’t listen to what the other person is saying.

Remember that 65% of all communication is done through body language (25% is through words and 10% is through vocal variety). Be engaging. Make eye contact, but do not stare. Don’t cross your arms when you are speaking. Occasionally lean in when the other person is talking. Think about what they are telling you, and let them know that you are thinking about it through your body language. These and other techniques for communicating nonverbally are found in The Definitive Book of Body Language: The Hidden Meaning Behind People’s Gestures and Expressions by Barbara Pease and Allan Pease.

I Like You; You Like Me

Generally, people like people who are like them, or who appear to be like them. People will frequently forget what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel when you said it. We don’t wear the same outfit when doing yardwork as we would if we were attending a mediation. We have the power of discernment. What works in one circumstance will not work in another. The difference between medicine and poison is in the dose.

The accomplished neutral knows that there are many tools in the toolbox and to use the ones that are most appropriate for each circumstance. Pacing and leading work because by first aligning with the other person, you get them to like and trust you. And similarities increase likability, and likability is a core lever of persuasion. This process is unconscious, and that’s what makes pacing and leading so powerful.

Establish Rapport Through Pacing and Leading

The idea that a good settlement leaves everyone unhappy is false. Rather, a good settlement is one in which everyone sacrifices for the common good to achieve closure. The previous two sentences are an example of leading. We took issue with a common belief and then offered compelling information to the contrary, thus leading the reader to adopt our view.

Dr. Milton H. Erickson was one of the greatest psychotherapists who ever lived. From him, we learned the pattern “pace, pace, pace, lead.” Another way of expressing this is build rapport, build rapport, build rapport and then gently push to change. The whimsical question “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” is easy to answer in the alternative dispute resolution (ADR) context. Pacing is an important part of building rapport, but it is all for naught if you cannot close the sale or seal the deal. ADR should lead to a settlement. Ideally, this will occur the day of the mediation, but it occasionally occurs weeks later. Pace, pace, pace, lead causes chinks in the armor, so it may take some time to fully reach someone and open them up to the idea of settlement.

Some people have a natural ability to pace and lead. To them, it’s effortless. Being a neutral requires a commitment to studying all aspects of our craft, including developing our communication skills. This will require practice, perfect practice. You can perform the same task a hundred different times, but you will not get better at it if you perform it incorrectly repeatedly.

Building rapport does not necessarily mean everyone will want to have a drink with you. You can be respectful and deferential without coming across as too familiar. Some people are gregarious, with a larger-than-life personality, while others radiate a quiet dignity. Every neutral can adopt their own brand, as long as they stay true to it.

Abraham Lincoln taught us that a lawyer’s highest calling is to be a peacemaker. We should be mindful of our modes of expression and make sure we are building rapport by pacing our partner’s words and actions by mirroring and matching. This should then be followed by leading them to a resolution where everyone makes some sacrifice. 

This page is for general information purposes. JAMS makes no representations or warranties regarding its accuracy or completeness. Interested persons should conduct their own research regarding information on this website before deciding to use JAMS, including investigation and research of JAMS neutrals. See More

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