Language is one of the mediator’s most valuable currencies; the words you use in a mediation can make or break a session. Think, for instance, about the difference between calling something a “plan” versus calling it an “agreement.” Most parties may be able to get behind creating a plan for moving forward, while many will bristle at the idea of agreeing to anything the person on the other side of the table says.
But how do you know what language to use? What are the guiding principles you should follow? This post will guide you through some of the concepts you should be thinking about when approaching language as a mediator.
The first rule of thumb is to be comfortable with the language you are using. Mediation is essentially a conversation. Therefore, it should feel conversational. The easiest way to do this is to keep things as straightforward as possible, not using obscure language or turns of phrase that might confuse or alienate parties.
Take your cue from the parties and meet them where they are. Think about context and what’s appropriate in a particular situation. In some ways this is an extension of being comfortable with the language you’re using and not alienating parties.
One example of this is the use of slang. The use of slang may be perfectly acceptable in certain mediations and not in others. It’s a matter of reading the room and paying attention to the parties’ own use of language. And if a party uses a slang term that is unfamiliar to you, don’t be shy about asking for the term to be defined in the same way you would ask an attorney to define a legal term.
Specificity is the spice of life
While you want to be comfortable with the language you use, you don’t want to get stuck in a rut using the same old well-worn phrases. Especially when it comes to describing emotions. While almost every mediator knows that a generic term like “angry” is not particularly useful, switching to substitutes like “disrespected” or “frustrated” is not much more effective.
Find a tool, such as this emotions wheel, which can expand the emotions vocabulary pie for you. Another way to expand your vocabulary is to be on the lookout in everyday life for descriptors that resonate with you. However you do it, paying close attention to language and expression will help you in mediations when you are trying to help a party feel heard and understood.
Ultimately, the language you use is a choice you will make in the moment. It may shift even within the same meeting or with the same party depending on what you’re trying to communicate and what you are trying to accomplish. Be aware of how you’re using language--and make your choices mindfully.