How a mediator should look
Question: At the center of the labor dispute between NFL owners and professional football players is George Cohen, a federal mediator known for his work in helping Major League Soccer come to a resolution over its own labor battles. Mediators have no power or authority to compel either side to do anything, but they still have the capability to influence the outcome in nuanced ways. What must Cohen do to bring the more uncompromising members of both sides together to make a deal?
I'm not sure what Cohen should do, but I am sure how he--or any mediator--should look.
Mediators should be extremely conscious of the equity of their nonverbal communication--using equal eye contact with each side, showing the same body-language signals to both sides, and avoiding nodding or head shaking when others are talking.
In American society, eye contact is important for persuasion and communication. The rule of thumb is to look at the person who is speaking until they have finished, then look away. This creates the sense that you are interested in their message. Looking away prematurely is usually perceived as not listening.
When a conflict gets heated or intense, a calm tone, relaxed body position and downward hand gestures can help to diffuse a tense situation. And remember to take a deep breath. Breathing can become restricted when you get caught up in a conflict.
Sometimes, when members of a group are split, there will be two distinct sets of body postures in the same group. If half of a group is disputing the other half, the members of each sub-group will tend to match up their body postures and movements that are distinct from the other sub-group. (Sometimes it is even possible to predict when one member is changing sides because his body will start to blend with the postures of the opposing team.) A mediator, trying to display neutrality, can take up an intermediate body posture--folding her arms like one side and crossing her legs like the other.
Mediators should monitor their own body responses for evidence of biases. We are all biased. The trick is not to let biases interfere--or show. Notice if your breathing has become restricted, if your muscles are tense or twitching, if you are feeling irritable or if your heart rate has increased. These are internal cues that all parties may be best served by taking a break!