The Mediator’s “Personal Qualities”

That quality which should perhaps be most sought after in a mediator was captured by Daniel Bowling and David Hoffman in their 2003 publication entitled “Bringing Peace Into the Room”.

They wrote that although “there is no single correct way to be a mediator”, the mediator’s personal qualities “have a direct impact on the mediation process and the outcome of the mediation”. Most important is “creating an atmosphere conducive to resolution”.

The mediator’s personal qualities serve as “a positive model for the parties, bringing peace, if you will, into the room” and aligning “the parties and mediation process in a more positive direction.” 1

Bringing peace to the room can be no small feat when emotions are running high. Imagine trying to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair devoted the better part of a chapter in his autobiography to negotiations that culminated in the Good Friday Agreement between the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain. Negotiations started as “a zero-sum game” for all the participants. “You suggest this. We oppose. You like this. We don’t… if one looked happy, the other looked for a reason to be sad.” Small wonder: “The hatred had become entrenched and horribly vicious over the centuries.”

In attempting to mediate between representatives of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Mr. Blair had to “absorb a large amount of abuse. No crude shouting down or protests, but your motives constantly questioned or traduced, your words misunderstood or misrepresented, your attempts to do good seen as attempts either to further your own interests or even to do bad.”

Mr. Blair persevered: “A great belief of mine is that when you are negotiating with someone, the first thing is to set the atmosphere at ease; signify a little glimmer of human feeling; exchange a few pleasantries and above all, start by saying something utterly uncontroversial with which disagreement is impossible. Get the other person’s head nodding. It is that nod which establishes rapport and which is an early, tiny sign that all is not lost.”

Mr. Blair emerged from the process with these lessons for mediating between even the most bitter disputants: “Realize that for both sides resolving the conflict is a journey, a process, not an event… each side takes time to leave the past behind. A conflict is not simply a disagreement characterized by violence. It has a history and it creates a culture… it is enduring and it is deep… the two sides rarely see each other’s pain.” 2

In such circumstances, the mediator “does not just help negotiate and mediate; they act as a buffer, a messenger and, crucially, as a persuader of good faith in a climate usually dominated by distrust. They also help define issues and indeed turning points”.

Hoffman and Bowling recommended that mediators “relinquish their own vision of the right way or best way to resolve the dispute and abandon any intention of imposing that vision on the parties. Instead, the mediator seeks, as the first order of business, to establish a genuine relationship with the parties – a relationship that enables the mediator to reach a deeper level of understanding of the parties’ views and objectives. Non-judgmental awareness of the parties’ needs thus constitutes the starting point for the mediator to use his or her influence, in a graceful and appropriate way, to guide the process towards resolution.”

  1. Daniel Bowling, David A. Hoffman, Bringing Peace Into the Room, How the Personal Qualities of the Mediator Impact the Process of Conflict Resolution, (Josey-Bass, 2003) at pp. 2, 14, 39, 40.
  2. Tony Blair, A Journey, My Political Life, (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010) at pp. 154, 162, 163, 172, 189, 191.