Communicating More Effectively Through Mediation
When I got my New York mediation certification in college, I saw an unusual hobby that would enable me to help friends navigate conflicts and contribute to my local community, through small claims and family court. It was a fun, social and meaningful extracurricular activity to bolster my liberal arts education in literature.
What I did not expect was how much my mediation skills would serve me professionally. The more time I’ve spent working in communications and PR, the more I’ve noticed myself falling on the core mediation techniques and practices to navigate sticky situations and team dynamics.
It’s All About Listening
As communications professionals, we like to talk, but a big part of our job is listening – to reporters, clients, team members, etc. For many, the tendency when listening is to immediately interject with our own experiences and advice, and in turn, we often don’t really hear what someone else is saying.
Mediation is all about learning how to hear what others are saying, through their words and through their body language. This means being quiet and paying close attention when someone else is speaking and letting them tell you what they’re concerned with instead of jumping in with your own assumptions. I’ve found this is particularly important when dealing with a sensitive or crisis communications situation. When speaking with both the client and the reporter, it’s important to take time to deeply listen to what’s going on, and from there, find a careful solution that makes sense for the full situation.
Listening also includes realizing what you’re not hearing. In other words, the missing piece or context that the speaker might be holding back. But how do you do that? That’s the second rule of mediation: know what questions to ask, and when. When someone is particularly vague about one point, or hesitates, it’s often because they are holding back. I’ve learned to dig into these holes by really pushing into them and asking for more information, which often opens a can of worms that can uncover the real crux of the issue.
For example, when we’re in Discovery meetings with a new client, there is an incredible amount of nuance and history that we need to glean, and often times, the experts we’re meeting with don’t have that information about branding and media outreach front of mind. Recognizing what’s not being said, and uncovering the core from what is said and through direct questions, helps ensure we leave with a deep understanding of our clients’ brand and culture.
My personal favorite question to ask is the simple yet effective, “tell me more about that?” This question is perfect for the situations where you know you’re not getting the full story from someone, or when you’re navigating a complicated situation and are trying to fully understand where someone might be coming from. The more information you have, the better you’re placed to successfully manage the issue at hand, whether it’s a team member who’s struggling with a project, a client who’s concerned about a media opportunity, or a reporter working on a story that you’re trying to get to the bottom of what they want to cover.
Solving the Problem
The core of mediation comes down to problem-solving and learning how to translate complaints and concerns into solutions that can make everyone happy. Compromise is important in life, but it’s not going to cut it in PR when you’re trying to manage brand profiles while balancing reporters’ guidelines and deadlines.
In mediation, we learn that every conflict comes down to one basic problem – peoples’ needs not being met. The swirling complaints, frustrations and emotions are all just noise that bubble up when someone feels they need something, and you have to cut through that noise to understand what that need is and find a way to meet it, across all parties.
It can be as simple as a need for downtime, for more preparation or for greater understanding. Or, it could be as large as a need for more respect and consideration, for more support or for greater appreciation of one’s hard work. Identifying those needs will enable you to get at the true root of the issue, and from there develop solutions that will be highly effective while also fostering good relationships.
This is by no means a comprehensive dive into conflict mediation, and I am not a certified trainer. But understanding and internalizing these key concepts and applying them at work has been a huge asset, and I feel like I’ve become a more effective team member and communications professional while delivering sounder advice to clients. And if I’ve missed something, I’d be happy to tell you more about that.