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Discussion Skills Vital For Mediators & Negotiators: And it's NOT EASY

From a panoramic perspective, mediators, neutrals and negotiators are peacemakers. They are problem-solvers. They are conflict managers. An important component of that process is discussion. Mediator and all peacekeepers need to have discussion moderation and participation skills. What a challenge!

Most people when they say, “let’s discuss,” really mean “I will talk and you listen to me.” This usually is not productive. Very few people enjoy being “lectured at.”

Remember the old saying: If two people think alike, they are taking one extra space.

DISCUSSION GOALS: The first step in conducting or participating in a productive discussion is to identify the goals. Usually these goals are set during planning with input from all participants and often guided by the sponsor. Sometime, the goal is to share perspectives, to gain a better understanding of the situation. Other times, the goal is to create a plan of action or actually reach an agreement or settle a problem. So, in most cases, before the participants arrive, the goal(s) should be clear so that participants can plan. Setting goals follows the Law of Persuasion: Expectations. Participants have realistic expectations about this discussion. They know in advance whether this is a sharing of information/perspectives or whether this will result in a plan of action.

GROUNDRULES OR GUIDELINES: Every discussion needs some guidelines to lay the foundation. If the meeting might be contentious, maybe the groundrules need to be set in advance. If not contentious, then it could prove to be an excellent uniting exercise by creating and setting guidelines at the beginning of the meeting. The moderator(M) might post on a whiteboard, chalkboard, poster or screen, two examples:

-Only one person speaks at a time.

-Turn off or mute all electronics.

The M can then open up the discussion for other suggested groundrules. This process follows the Law of Persuasion: Involvement. This provides a buy-in for the participants.

SIGNING OFF ON GROUNDRULES: One key to effective enforcement of the groundrules is for all participants to sign off on them or agree to them. Sometimes a simple raising of the hand(s) will do. Often this sets the stage for self enforcement. Other times, the other participants might enforce and finally the M must enforce.

Remember the old saying: A person pushed against their will is of the same opinion still. In the ideal discussion, all participants feel as if they are voluntarily going through the process.

If a participant does not agree, the M must not go forth but instead inquire as to the issue and get it resolved.

IDENTIFY ISSUES: This is a very important step that some M do before any discussion or maybe directly after some discussion. These should also be put on the board and agreed by all. This will prevent rambling and irrelevant remarks. This may also prevent extraneous issues being raised at the very end.

If extra issues are raised, these can be valued and posted on another board, sometimes called “the parking lot.” These then can be dealt with at the end of the meeting or at another session.

MODERATING: Recall the Blog on Illusory Superiority?

Many mediators, negotiators and professionals believe they are great moderators. Research shows that 28% probably are not. So, the group needs to think of metrics as to what makes an excellent moderator for this session. One metric might be evaluations from other experiences.

In many cases, maybe most it is best to have the M not involved in the issues; that is, have the M to be neutral and independent. (Remember the Blog on Being Neutral and what a challenge this is?)

One District of Columbia Council Member would bring in co-Moderators Larry Ray and Prue Kestner (at the time, this covered some diversity of old/young, male/female) to moderate neutrally potentially explosive neighborhood meetings.

At the same time, the diversity of the M should not be an issue since the M is process oriented, not substantively oriented.

CONSENSUS: This is a challenging process and will be the focus of a future blog. Many people use this term and assume their meaning is that of others. Below are 3 legal definitions of consensus. One can discern that these vary. They key for the M is to get an agreement on what consensus looks like for this particular group.

-Consensus means an agreement on a given issue that all parties to the agreement can live with and publicly support.

-Consensus. ’ means unanimous concurrence among the interests.

-Consensus means a process by which a group synthesis on all ideas and concerns to form a common collaborative agreement acceptable to all members.

TIMING: This should be considered. Research says that here in the United States, most folks are most productive on Tuesdays and Wednesdays around 10-12 noon so if possible schedule it then.*

QUESTIONING PROCESS: This process also seems easy but is challenging. Question is a skill. The M needs to value each question and there is no need for the M to assess the question whether it be good, bad, or silly. Further the M need not answer the questions. The M might place the question on the board and throw it out to the participants to respond, not necessary “answer.” This questioning will add to the discussion.

VENUE: It is worthwhile to spend some time thinking about the venue. If the meeting is one of about 20 participants, it is great to find a space that has lots of space, lots of light, availability of audio-visuals and refreshments. This sets a perfect problem solving stage, nonverbally.

SAFETY: Safety is an important issue that should be considered at all times. In most cases, this is usually not an issue. At the same time, planning ahead is wise even if it is nothing more than making sure the venue has enough exits for participants to easily leave the meeting.

PLAN OF ACTION OR AGREEMENT: This last stage should be thought about in the beginning. What will the plan or the agreement look like in the end? Sufficient time needs to be devoted to this. which also should be placed visibly on the board. In this way, all participants leave the meeting with the same understanding of next steps. So often, participants have enjoyed the dialog but are disappointed with no outcome.

The moderators and the sponsors wish all participants to leave feel as if their time has been valued and wisely used.



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