Spotlight on skills: Top 10 mediation skills for everyday practice

Naomi Hayward reviews the Essential Skills for Working Relationships course run by Angela Lake-Carroll and Suzy Power.

Are the skills you learn in mediation and collaborative law training only used in mediation and collaborative cases?  Simply put – no!

These traditionally viewed “DR” skills are routinely used in and enhance every day, non-dispute resolution cases as well.  As we are routinely dealing with clients who are in distress and going through difficult separations with or without children involved, these skills can in fact be an invaluable tool in the family practitioner’s everyday toolkit.  Having these skills at our fingertips and embracing the wide benefit of them not only benefits the clients but also us as practitioners.

So do you need to undergo the formal mediation and collaborative training to start learning and implementing those skills for everyday practice?  Not now!

Suzy Power and Angela Lake-Carroll have developed an excellent course called “Essential Skills for Working Relationships” which draws on the skills learnt and developed in mediation and collaborative law to give participants the tools and insight into how these skills can be used in everyday practice.

I had the benefit of attending the pilot of this (currently) virtual course which is open to all practitioners from whatever background and at whatever level of qualification, whether you are highly experienced and have not undergone any DR training or whether you are a newly qualified solicitor starting out in your career.

The course was held over three virtual sessions covering (a) how to engage more effectively with clients; (b) actively listening to clients; and (c) using language and questioning to get the most out of your clients.

My top 10 takeaways for how to use mediation skills in everyday practice cases as learnt on the course are:

  1. Be comfortable sitting with silence and discomfort.  It is important to understand that we only see and hear about 10% of what a client is prepared to expose to us.  Don’t feel the need to fill all gaps in conversation with the client. This silence may be the time that the client says the things they are truly thinking but might otherwise not have said. It also gives the client the time to think about how to answer that particular question.
  2. Clients may keep repeating their story as a means of processing what has happened to them.  It is important for us as practitioners to assess if a client can really hear what we are saying to them.  Now may not be the right time for them to be taking advice and it may result in a difficult working relationship.  We also need to remember that we hear many of these stories time and time again which can desensitise us to the trauma and difficulties that our clients are going through.
  3. Use acknowledgements in conversation with the client.  As practitioners we need to understand that we may be triggering clients by asking them for the information we require.  Do not probe clients too early, be cautious and sensitive.  Simple phrases such as “I can see that this is still very raw for you” and “I can hear this has been really upsetting and difficult” can help the client to know you have heard them and give them the resolve to move forward constructively with you.
  4. Always explore with the client what support network they have.  We know that we cannot be a client’s support and that our role is a limited one.  Always ask clients what support they have and who they can talk to and explain that it is important that they find support during this process.  Using the phrase “professional support” can be better than “counsellor” due to stigma and perception and professional support may be better for a client than family or friends who have a vested interest.
  5. Listen with your eyes as well as your ears.  This is slightly more challenging with remote meetings but look beyond what is being said by the client.  There will be clues in a client’s body language.  Watch, listen and think: is there is something more behind what is being said? Use open questions to encourage the client to tell you more and think more – for example “where do you see things in 6 months?”.
  6. Repeat, summarise and be empathetic.  Repeating things back to a client that they have said can be really useful, particularly when dealing with an angry or distressed client, as can summarising what they have said.  It will help to keep things on track and ensure the client knows you have heard them (or it quickly identifies where you perhaps haven’t heard them properly).  Being empathetic with softer language about what you have seen and heard will also assist.  Steer clear of being sympathetic.  A useful guide is: “so what I’ve heard is….”, “what we need to do is….”, and “I can see that this has been really difficult for you.…”.
  7. Be aware of the effect that taking notes in a meeting can have on a client.  Identify what parts of the client’s story you can just listen to without noting it down.  If the client says something important then ask them to pause so that you can note that part down.  You can then maintain eye contact, read body language and build rapport whilst still ensuring the key information is captured in your note.
  8. Normalise any distress or discomfort expressed by the client.  If a client cries, give them time and normalise this by saying it is not uncommon to get upset.  Give clients permission to take their time. If a client is angry and wants to fight their partner, normalise this by saying it is not unusual to feel that your only choice is to fight.
  9. Use open and future-focussed questions.  Where people are in a heightened state of stress, anger or anxiety (perhaps primed for battle) you may be able to use open, future-focussed questions to bring them back from that.  For example, “if this conflict wasn’t here, what would your decision be?” or “how did you used to communicate with X before this conflict?” or “how would you like this to be for the children in a year’s time?”.
  10. Think about who supports you as the practitioner. If you are overburdened or stressed, this will affect your ability to be a good listener.  There is a wide variety of support out there for practitioners including such resources as the confidential YRes 1-2-1 Mentoring Programme and the confidential support line provided by Law Care.  Do not be afraid to access them if you need to.

This is just a snapshot of the DR skills and takeaways that can play an important and useful role in our unique practice area, whether or not we have an interest in training in one of the DR options in the future.