4 Practical Tips for Effective Conflict Mediation

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Nonviolent Communication" by Marshall B. Rosenberg. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is conflict mediation? What is the role of a mediator in conflict resolution?

Conflict mediation is a process in which an impartial party helps those involved achieve a mutually acceptable resolution. The mediator keeps the conversation on track by continually refocusing everyone’s attention on feelings, needs, and requests.

Here are four practical tips for nonviolent conflict mediation, according to Marshall Rosenberg.

Conflict Mediation: The Nonviolent Approach

According to Marshall Rosenberg, the author of Nonviolent Communication, conflict mediation is a process whereby a neutral person helps the contending parties reach a mutually acceptable resolution. Conflict mediation can be especially helpful in conflicts where those directly involved are experiencing emotions strong enough to prevent them from listening with empathy.

For mediation to be effective, the mediator must establish trust by reassuring both parties that they are not taking sides. Even if they have personal opinions about the conflict, the mediator’s job is not to secure a particular outcome but to help both parties express their needs, identify each other’s needs, and brainstorm solutions that will meet all those needs. 

Conflict mediation using the NVC approach can be difficult because people often interpret the mediator’s empathy as taking sides. Empathy is the mediator’s best tool for helping both people feel heard enough to effectively communicate. For example, the mediator might respond to an accusation of taking sides by saying, “It sounds like you’re feeling annoyed, and that you need to know you’ll get a chance to say your piece?” This brief detour can help everyone stay open to communication instead of retreating into self-defense.

Here are some tips for effective conflict mediation from Marshall Rosenberg:

Tip 1: Make Notes

One of the mediator’s biggest responsibilities is ensuring that everyone gets a chance to fully express their needs, which can be especially difficult when tensions run high and people talk over one another. In that case, it’s helpful to keep a running list of what’s been expressed and by whom. As a bonus, making a note of what was said last on a whiteboard or large paper can be a visual cue that helps everyone involved stay on topic and be reassured that they’ve been heard.

Tip 2: Focus on the Present

Additionally, it’s important to keep the conversation focused on the present. People in conflict may continually bring up things that happened in the past or their demands for the future. Keeping the focus on what everyone feels and needs right now helps move the conversation toward resolution rather than dwelling on old issues or future possibilities. 

Tip 3: Use Role Play

In particularly thorny conflicts, people often get stuck in a cycle of repeating their position over and over and making no real progress. The mediator can help break that cycle by using role-play to represent the needs and experience of both sides. To start, the mediator will assume the role of one person and state that person’s needs and feelings to the other. This has two benefits: It reassures the person being represented that their needs are being understood, and it makes it easier for the other party to hear those needs because they’re being spoken by a neutral third party. 

To keep things even, the mediator would then switch parts and repeat the process. The mediator should check in periodically with “the director” (the person they’re portraying) to make sure they’re on track. You don’t need to be an actor to use role-play—the important part is to tap into a common humanity and try to understand what that person is feeling and needing. 

Role-play can also be a useful tool if the parties aren’t willing to meet in person. In that case, you can role play with each person individually, film it, and then show that filmed role play to the other party. This isn’t as effective as in-person mediation, but it can be a helpful tool if necessary. 

Tip 4: Interrupt When Necessary

If a mediation gets especially heated, the mediator might need to interrupt in order to keep the conversation on track. One way to do this is to repeat “excuse me” as many times (and as loudly) as necessary. When the shouting stops and you have the group’s attention, refocus the conversation on the most recent expression of needs that hasn’t been fully addressed. If you suspect you might need to interrupt the group frequently to keep the conversation productive, it helps to clarify in advance that you’ll only interrupt to keep the process moving and that everyone will get a chance to express themselves. 

Informal Conflict Mediation

Informal conflict mediation happens when someone intervenes in a situation and plays the role of mediator without being asked. While you may not want to make a habit of barging into other people’s disputes, it’s sometimes necessary to intervene if you suspect that one person could somehow harm the other (for example, if an argument between your coworkers starts to escalate into shouting). 

To be helpful as an informal mediator, you need to be well-practiced in all the steps of NVC and particularly skilled at interpreting needs that are expressed through aggression, derision, or violence. 

If you find yourself in the role of informal mediator (assuming there is no immediate threat of physical violence), your first priority is to empathize with the aggressor in the situation. If someone is already worked up to the point of shouting, making judgments about their behavior will only escalate the situation and put the other person at risk. Instead, listen for the feelings and needs behind the aggressive person’s behavior and show genuine empathy for those experiences. Once the person feels fully understood, they’ll be calm enough to work through the other steps of NVC conflict resolution.

4 Practical Tips for Effective Conflict Mediation

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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