Communication in international mediation – overview and some useful techniques

The following post is intended to give you an inisght into the publication by the internationale project „InMEDIATE“ that was founded to establish the European vocational profile of the International Mediator to act as international mediators in cross-border civil disputes.

To see the website of the project just use the link.




In this article, we take a look at some techniques that can be useful for mediators in international and cross-border conflicts. We will start however with some general reflections on the assumptions that we hold about the role of an international mediator, his or her objectives and the significance of his or her interventions. We will aim to refer to practical examples, based on intercultural research.

To begin with we want to emphasize that each person and each mediation is unique, and that generalizations can lead to harmful stereotypes. On the other hand, both scientific research, for example led by intercultural psychologists such as Geert Hofstede (2001), as well as practical models described by management consultants in intercultural environments such as Fons Trompenaars (2012), Richard Lewis (2018), Erin Meyer (2015) or Richard Gesteland (2012), indicate that we actually can - with some caution - talk about national cultures, understood as values ​​and general norms of behavior that people in given group follow. Of course, individuals will differ within the same culture and sometimes these differences may be very significant, but in general we will also observe beliefs or modes of behavior common to the majority. We also need to notice that common norms of conduct may concern not only national cultures, but also, for example, organizational or professional ones. So professional groups from different countries or cultures: such as lawyers, teachers, doctors or mediators may have similar communication styles or have similar ideas about, for example, ethical behavior. Similarities may be greater within the profession, despite cultural differences, than between two individuals within the same national culture, but coming from different organizational or professional groups.

So as mediators, we rely on certain common values and norms of action, regardless of culture, although the details regarding the preferred techniques or modes of interacting with our clients may differ. No matter what cultural scale we take into account, like national culture or, for example, professional subculture, we need to be really attentive towards possible differences because both underestimating as well as overestimating them might pose challenges to communication.


Cultural lenses

Norwegian mediator Grethe Nordhelle (2010) compares cultural competence to lenses and says that:

“A person may have different types of lenses of different thickness and strength, and may also try to match the appropriate ones to the mediation process. Eyeglasses that do not improve eyesight just have to be put away. If you find eyeglasses allowing for a sharper view of the case, you should put them on before you start dealing with the dispute. If you don’t have a sufficient choice of "cultural eyeglasses" in your toolbox, you won’t be fully equipped to work with people from cultures different from the one you operate in."[1]

Our approach in this article is based on the following assumptions:

  • Cultural context shapes our approach to conflict as well as communication and behavioral preferences
  • Cultural context also influences the course of mediation and the role and position of the mediator
  • Each participant in mediation (both mediator and party) enters the process with certain beliefs and expectations, of which we can be aware but also unaware. These expectations may be similar or different to those of other people, which can affect communication, sometimes impairing it significantly.


It may be important to take a moment to look at our mediation practice and explore our own cultural lenses and the approach we adopt while working with the parties. Here are some points for reflection concerning the principles of working together with the parties:  What are the key points that we establish in the mediation contract? Perhaps they relate to the way people address each other, the sequence of speaking turns, or punctuality. These principles may fit into some specific cultural dimensions. For example, a focus on punctuality and a fixed agenda where every issue has its specific timeframe will be more characteristic of the linear time approach, while greater elasticity in this respect will be expected in the flexible time approach (see e.g. Meyer 2015). Likewise, addressing the parties with their first names will emphasize partnership, less interpersonal distance and less ceremonialism, while the use of last names and formal titles - vice versa.

If we compared the approaches we take in mediation, we could discover that in some aspects they are similar - regardless of whether we mediate in Poland, Germany or Italy. The model that most of us adopt in Europe is largely based on an individualistic, linear approach and direct communication. This means, for example, that we aim for parties taking turns when they speak, we ask them not to interrupt each other, we tone down emotional reactions and work according to plan, ensuring that the meeting begins and ends at the agreed times. This model also includes a certain degree of directiveness, as well as the use of metacommunication, that is talking about the process and what is happening between the parties in an explicit way.

On the other hand of course, we also differ in our mediation practice and choosing the exact techniques we work with. In the next parts of this article we’ll try to expand our toolbox of „cultural lenses” and see how cultural differences might affect the choice of the specific mediation techniques that we adopt.


Reflexivity in mediation

We are convinced that a key element in transnational mediation should be the constant observation of perceptions, emotions and actions followed by reflection concerning their possible meanings in the experiences of both the mediator and the parties. Stella Ting-Toomey (1999), who is an internationally recognized professor of human communication studies, in her book entitled “Communicating across cultures” refers to this as mindfullness. In her words:

“Mindfullness means being awareof our own and others’ behavior in the situation, and paying focused attention to the process of communication taking place between us and dissimilar others. Mindlessness, in comparison, implies habitual ways of thinking and behaving without conscious awareness of our underlying intentions and/or emotions” (Ting-Toomey 1999:16).

She further notes that: “In mindful communication, we encounter ourselves and others in the ‘flow’ of the interaction moment. In mindless communication, we are consumed by either our habits, reactive/defensive emotions, or biased ethnocentric cognitions. To become an effective communicator in diverse cultural situations, we must first be mindful of the different characteristics that constitute the process itself” (Ting-Toomey 1999:16).

Attention and insight help the mediator to assist the parties in “expanding the negotiation pie” and thus increase the likelihood of agreement. It may be achieved through techniques such as posing and testing hypotheses. Reflection also allows parties to gain a greater understanding of their own interests and those of the other party, which makes their approach to negotiation more flexible. The role of the mediator – as we understand it – is to assist the parties in opening to the perspective of the other person, to help them reflect on what the other party is really trying to say and detach from their own point of view. Mediators pose questions about where the parties are in the process and where they are heading. The aim of these actions is to bring more flexibility into the parties’ perception and understanding, thus broadening their perspectives and creating more space for agreement.

Mediation participants often perceive, interpret and evaluate what is happening between them differently because they refer to different values and assumptions. This in turn leads to different behaviors that might also be rooted in cultural patterns which evoke different interpretations thus deepening the polarization (Kimmel 2006). In many cases, this is closely related to the occurrence of attribution errors, as well as negative emotions and responses to these emotions. The fundamental attribution error (…) is the tendency to attribute the behavior of others to their personality traits while underestimating situational factors. So, for example, we may interpret the actions of another person as a result of their characteristics such as unkindness, impulsiveness or irresponsibility instead of thinking of the possible context in which the parties act, including also cultural differences. In many cases misunderstandings will occur when people – from their own perspective – are acting properly, respectfully and politely according to their own norms, which turn out to be different than those of their communication partners. Stella Ting-Toomey refers to this as “well-meaning clashes” (Ting-Toomey 1999: 22).

Let’s look at an example. Imagine a conversation between two parties in mediation. Let’s call them Carlos and Hans. At one point Carlos says to Hans that he needs more time to make a final decision. Hans consents to this and says: “okay, then let’s agree you reply by Thursday noon”. To which Carlos refuses to schedule a fixed date and answers that he will deliver his proposal when he collects all the data and when he’s ready to make the decision. At this point, things might get tense in the mediation. Hans begins to attribute negative intentions to Carlos. He might think Carlos is deliberately slowing things down, or that he wants to avoid making binding declarations. He may even assume that Carlos is avoiding cooperation and negotiating in bad faith. Carlos’ attributions in this case are also negative. He probably thinks that Hans is pressing on him and ignoring his needs. He may feel that Hans is aiming to go hard in the negotiation process and gain advantage in a non-cooperative way and that this is an unnecessary manifestation of power. It is easy to imagine how the conversation may develop, when the parties stick to these negative interpretations and emotions associated with them, such as anger, anxiety, disappointment, and so on. They may take more competitive actions towards the other party and lose trust in each other as a result. To prevent further stalemate Hans and Carlos may be supported by the mediator’s intervention based on positive connotation.


Positive connotation

According to communication theorists such as Paul Watzlawick (Watzlawick, P., Bavelas, J. B., & Jackson, D. D. 2011) or Ernst von Glasersfeld (Von Glasersfeld, E. 1984), reality is not given and discovered but constructed. So there is no one objective view of the world, and instead, every person creates their own version of reality, a perspective built out of the individual's unique experiences – both in general terms but also concerning specific situations or relationships. People create meaning out of events in order to make sense of the world. And they do it – or we do it - in a way that serves our individual needs – such as positive self-esteem or feeling in control of the situation. So when we’re stuck in a dispute and feel threatened, frustrated or angry, we often tend to attach negative meaning to the other party’s behaviors. Positive connotation is a concept that implies that each action, gesture or statement can be assigned with positive meaning. So every difficult behaviour can be interpreted through positive motives. This provides an opportunity to build mutual understanding and creativity towards the problem.

Based on the concept of positive connotation, the mediator can address Hans as follows:

‘Hans, I understand that for you predictability is important and when Carlos is reluctant to set a specific deadline you perceive it as a sign of his bad intentions in negotiation. At the same time Carlos's disagreement with setting a specific date can also be interpreted as a sincere approach to cooperating with you and the willingness to provide a deliberate and reliable answer.’

The mediator can then address Carlos:

‘Carlos, I understand that for you a sense of partnership is important and when Hans suggests to set a deadline for your answer you perceive it as exerting pressure and not taking your needs into account. At the same time, Hans’s wish to specify the timeframe can also be interpreted as his need for predictability and reliability.’

The mediator can then ask both parties: ‘What do you think about my understanding of your actions?’

When the mediator applies the technique of positive connotation it is important to give recognition to the parties. That is to acknowledge their perspective, without voicing opinions or evaluations. During your mediation practice you have probably experienced behaviours or stories coming from your clients that generated your astonishment, disbelief or even aversion. In international mediations we can experience surprising words, gestures and actions. So it is important to notice our own reactions as mediators – such as irritation or helplessness – and communicate with the parties to uncover underlying motives, rather than negative attributions.

For example, in individualistic cultures (see e.g. Hofstede 2001), professional experience and competence will be crucial for the clients to gain trust in their mediator. In collectivist cultures, getting to know each other and building personal bonds will be important, therefore the party may ask the mediator a series of more private questions. A mediator coming from an individualistic culture may perceive these as intrusive, off-topic or a possible risk to impartiality. By applying positive connotation the mediator can try to better understand the intentions of the client – in this case their effort to build trust. The mediator can then choose an appropriate reaction: either to allow the personal connection or to articulate his or her doubts about its possible impact on the mediation process.

Oftentimes, the escalation of conflict comes from mutual prejudices and negative beliefs about each other. The parties will usually try to demonstrate that their position is the right and just one. The role of the mediator will be to explore underlying assumptions and identify attributions that impede agreement. Positive connotation helps change perspective and frame of reference, which is a useful technique in identifying misunderstandings, offences and triggers to conflict.


Preparation phase

Reflexivity is an important approach throughout the mediation process. Let’s have a closer look now at the initial phases, that is preparation and presenting parties’ perspectives on the conflict situation. The preparation phase is a good moment for the mediator to get to know the parties. It is also a good moment to try to understand their different perspectives, goals and motivations, before they sit down together at one table. Though some mediators do not usually hold preliminary meetings with parties separately, our practice in international cases shows that this might be a useful tool. Such talks are a good opportunity to reflect on the ways we think and act. It is also a good moment to raise awareness to the possible cultural differences and transfer some knowledge about these issues to the parties. Doing this in caucus gives us more space for culturally adequate communication with each of the parties separately, giving everyone time to prepare for joint communication. Actually, individual meetings with each party are a mediation technique in itself, which requires reflection:

Why are we doing this?

What are we doing this for?

How do we want to do this?

The preparatory phase is also a good time to reflect on values, assumptions and expectations, both on the part of the mediator and the parties. At this point the mediator might find it useful to seek the advice of a cultural expert, for example someone who has been raised in the culture whose norms we are trying to understand correctly. This may help us decode the possible interpretations of a given situation through the lens of values that are important in the cultures of the parties. In the preparatory phase mediators might also want to introduce themselves, say something about how they understand their role and their way of working. It is important to develop trust between the mediator and the client, but also to build authority in a way that is culturally adequate, which is an issue that we will look into in more detail.

Christopher Moore and Peter Woodrow – authors of the book entitled “Handbook of global and multicultural negotiation” (2010) underline that the awareness of diverse cultural expectations is important at every stage of negotiation or mediation. Starting from an extensive preparation phase, through the actual opening of mediation and further on in the process. They look at the distinction between task-oriented and relationship-oriented cultures, which we can also find in the work of Richard Gesteland (2012). For example, people from task-oriented cultures will usually expect a brief opening of the negotiation process and moving on swiftly to the merits of the case, without spending time on unnecessary – in their opinion – social interactions. Talks “off the topic” are usually considered a waste of time. In relationship-oriented cultures we will experience quite the opposite. Here the phase of establishing rapport will be of key importance for further talks. Relationship-building may be based on eating meals together, informal meetings and taking the time to talk in a sincere and personal manner. These may all be very important activities for building trust.

If we go back to the perspective of negative attributions, a task-oriented person may perceive his or her own way of being as effective, honest, transparent and efficient, while the behaviour of the other person may be perceived as unreasonable or even tactical delaying. And oppositely, a relationship-oriented person may perceive his or her own way of being as sincere and honest, where social activities are regarded as a crucial element of building relationship and trust, which are needed to work out an agreement in the future. The behaviour of the other person may be perceived as arrogant, impolite or even offensive. When both parties, with the help of the mediator, realize that the basis of their approaches may be culturally based, they might become more flexible in the trust-building phase and take into account the needs of the other party in this respect.

The initial meetings with the parties may be a good occasion to raise awareness concerning cultural issues and the possible differences in approach to conflict and mediation. It may also be an opportunity to talk about preferred ways of communicating, reflect on attitudes and stereotypes, values and norms of what is regarded appropriate and inappropriate in the process of dispute resolution. It may also be a good moment to check what are the expectations towards the mediator and also whether the planned way of conducting the mediation is acceptable for the clients and does not cause tensions.


Communication style

Determining the preferred communication style of the parties in conflict is an important issue in the preparatory phase of international mediation. It may be useful to note the distinction between high and low context here. The concept originally comes from anthropologist Edward Hall (1976) but has been adapted and developed in many later works, both by academics and practitioners, among them also Erin Meyer (2015) and Christopher Moore (2014).

Low-context communication means that the message is stated directly and explicitly, high-context means that most of the message is conveyed indirectly and ‘between the lines’. We need to notice that high and low context is actually a continuum between extremes, which means that other people can, for example, be more direct in their communication than us, while at the same time less direct than others. Erin Meyer in her book „The Culture Map” gives some leads as to how to work with people who follow different communication patterns than we do. Generally speaking, when we encounter differences in communication style, it may be a good idea to head towards low context communication, in order to minimize misinterpretations. In high-context communication we need to refer to common meanings and understandings, which is especially difficult when we are dealing with conflict. On the other hand, we should remember that a person who prefers high-context communication may need more opportunities for separate talks with the mediator, to create non-confrontational settings and take care of saving face.

Drawing on Erin Meyers work (2015: 50-54), some guidelines for communicating with people from the high-context cultures are:

  • Be aware that there may be hidden meanings and try to read “between the lines”
  • Ask open questions, but be careful not to cause the other person to lose face
  • Be aware of your own communication style, try to listen and observe more instead of repeating your own statements
  • Ask for clarification


Some guidelines for communicating with people from the low-context cultures are:

  • Try to express yourself openly and directly
  • Do not assume that the other person will understand the context
  • Repeat the most important information
  • Prepare a written recap of the most important arrangements
  • Ask for clarification if you don’t fully understand


Asking questions

Asking questions is one of the fundamental techniques that we use in our work as mediators – regardless of the context of communication. We should bear in mind however, that our approach may at times create tension when it comes to cultural differences. Christopher J. Moore and Peter J. Woodrow in their “Handbook of global and multicultural negotiation” (240-242) present different types of questions that can be applied to different culturally-relevant communication styles. It turns out that in most approaches it may be appropriate to ask the following types of questions:

  • open-ended questions such as “Can you say something more about that? We’d be interested to hear your thinking on this”
  • clarifying questions such as “Could you tell us a bit more about this so that we can better understand what is important for you?”, “Could you give us some more details?” “I’m not sure that I understand your proposal well, could you please clarify some points?” “I would like to make sure - did I understand you accurately?”
  • broadening or expanding questions such as “what other elements should we consider?”, “is there anything else that seems important at this point?” 
  • option-generation questions such as “how could we improve these options to better meet your interests?”, “can you think of other ways to achieve your goals?”


In high-context cultures we should be very careful with closed and specific questions as well as challenging or confronting questions. Also questions that require explanation such as “what makes this so important to you?” and questions confronting with potential consequences, such as “what might happen if…?” or “what would be the worst scenario?” or “what do you think your chances are in court?” might in some cases be too direct and cause embarrassment or resistance. 



Another important aspect of communication is how people disagree with each other or refuse to do something. This may be especially significant in conflict resolution. Moore and Woodrow (2010) give an example of a sentence “it will be very difficult” which in the words of a Japanese is in fact a coded message for “it is impossible and will not happen”. An American – used to direct communication - might however read this statement as confirmation that the other party will undertake relevant action.

Erin Meyer (2015: 204) presents a model of disagreement based on two dimensions. The first dimension refers to how directly differences in opinion are voiced. On the one extreme there are confrontational cultures, where people openly challenge the views, positions and ideas of others, separating the opinion from the person who presented it. Confrontation is regarded as a path to development and finding the best possible solutions. On the other extreme there are cultures where people avoid confrontation, value harmony and agreement, which are regarded as key elements of maintaining good relationships. Disputing and questioning other peoples’ opinions is often perceived as a personal attack.

The second dimension refers to the expression of emotions. On one extreme there are cultures where people are used to expressing their emotions vividly and clearly, on the other extreme there are cultures where emotional expression is rather moderate and restrained. Meyer puts the two scales together to get four quadrants: As confrontational and emotionally expressive cultures Meyer indicates for example Greece, France, Spain and Italy. As confrontational and emotionally inexpressive cultures Meyer indicates for example Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. As cultures avoiding confrontation but emotionally expressive Meyer indicates for example India, Brazil, Mexico and Saudi Arabia. As cultures avoiding confrontation and emotionally inexpressive Meyer indicates for example Japan and China but to some extent also Sweden.

The US and UK are situated more or less in the middle of the scales, with the US more on the confrontational and emotionally expressive side and the UK more on the emotionally unexpressive and avoiding confrontation side.

If we are working as a mediator with people from cultures that avoid confrontation we might consider conducting more separate meetings with the parties, as well as transmitting information in more indirect forms. This may also be useful when the parties have very different social positions or for example different positions in organizational hierarchy, where relations are less horizontal and less partnership-based. We should also bear in mind that the expression of emotions itself  – regardless of the degree of confrontation – can be perceived differently. For a person who is inexpressive, the emotional engagement of the other party who is expressive may seem irritating or even be perceived as aggression or lack of self-control. And conversely, a person who is emotionally expressive might consider someone who is more restrained as distant and withdrawn, or maybe even insincere. The role of the mediator will be to explore and normalise the possible cultural source of these differences and clarify motivations as well as mutual expectations.

Another important issue in the pre-mediation stage will be to determine: What are the preferred behavioural patterns of the parties in conflict and their approaches to working together? People may have different approaches and preferred ways of working in the process of dispute resolution. Some will prefer to work in an orderly manner, keeping to schedule and clear sequence of actions. Some will be more flexible and accustomed to doing a few things at a time. And others will prefer to follow the process and refrain from strict positions when it comes to procedure.

Richard Lewis, a linguist and intercultural communication expert, in his book entitled “When cultures collide” (2018) developed a model of cultural types based on three dimensions:

Linear-active cultures, to which Lewis includes especially Germany and Switzerland but also to some extent the USA and UK. Characteristic traits of this type of culture are that people work methodically, systematically and according to schedule. They value punctuality – understood in a monochronic sense – and usually stick to agreed procedures. In everyday social contacts people are rather unemotional, they seem rather quiet and patient, and rarely interrupt others. In a dispute they will often look for information based on logic, data and regulations.

Multi-active cultures, to which Lewis includes especially Italy and Spain but also Greece or Portugal. Characteristic traits of this type of culture are that people prefer to plan in outline rather than in detail, because they anticipate changes and modifications anyway. Such changes are regarded as natural and unavoidable and so is doing several things at once (for example answering phone-calls in meetings), which is totally justifiable. Time is perceived in a polychronic way so punctuality, time-keeping and working according to schedule are rather less important issues. In everyday social contacts people seem talkative, emotional, open and outgoing. Interrupting others is acceptable. In dispute people will often look for information based on practice, expertise and opinions of authority.

Reactive cultures, to which Lewis includes especially Vietnam, China and Japan. Characteristic traits of this type of culture are that although people value punctuality, they also have a flexible approach to changes in schedule and like to see the whole picture. In everyday social contacts people seem rather quiet and patient, they are good listeners and do not interrupt others. It is very important to avoid confrontation, not to lose face and to show respect.


Considering such differences in approach may prove important in planning the mediation process. As mediators we should think of key issues concerning the course of the mediation meetings, as well as common ground-rules for communication and cooperation, such as:

  • should the mediator plan some time for less formal talks and getting to know each other or come directly to the issue in dispute?
  • how should the mediator address the parties – for example more directly, by name, or more formally, with acknowledgement of titles and positions?
  • should the mediator accept when the parties interrupt each other or should he or she keep order in the discussion?
  • how detailed should the plan of the mediation process be? Should there be a fixed schedule of meetings?
  • should the mediator allow for the parties to exchange their positions in writing before a joint mediation meeting?
  • should the mediation session have a detailed agenda, agreed on in advance? Or is it sufficient to draft the key points and issues for discussion at the beginning of the meeting?
  • should issues be discussed one-by-one in a specific order or are changes of topic acceptable depending on the needs of the parties?
  • how should punctuality be addressed as well as changes in schedule or plan?
  • should there be a written summary after each meeting?
  • how much planning in advance is needed?


It is important for the mediator to take the time at the beginning of the mediation process, both in individual meetings with the parties and at the beginning of the first joint session, to talk about expectations and preferred approaches to the process as well as set common ground-rules. The initial phases of mediation are also a good moment to discuss preferred approaches to collecting information and working out an agreement. In order to minimize future misunderstandings and differences in expectations, the mediator can ask such questions as:

  • Would you prefer to work on the main objectives of the agreement first or start drafting a detailed document right away?
  • How should we plan the process for amendments and corrections in the future agreement?
  • Should we include any external experts in the process?


In practice, it may be useful to apply a hybrid model of mediation where the mediators work with the parties both in joint meetings and individually. This allows to adjust the communication style and pace of the process to the preferences of both parties creating also the opportunity for them to exchange perspectives and share meanings.




Watzlawick, P., Bavelas, J. B., & Jackson, D. D. (2011). Pragmatics of human communication: A study of interactional patterns, pathologies and paradoxes. WW Norton & Company.

Joldersma, Clarence W. "Ernst von Glasersfeld's radical constructivism and truth as disclosure." Educational Theory 61.3 (2011): 275-293

Gesteland, R. R. (2012). Cross-cultural business behavior: A guide for global management. Copenhagen Business School Press DK.

Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond culture. Anchor.

Hofstede, G. (1984). Culture's consequences: International differences in work-related values (Vol. 5). sage.

Deutsch, M., Coleman, P. T., & Marcus, E. C. (Eds.). (2011). The handbook of conflict resolution: Theory and practice. John Wiley & Sons.

Lewis, R. (2018). When cultures collide: Leading across cultures. Hachette UK.

Meyer E. (2019) The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, Lisa Larsen Publisher

Moore, C. (2014). Mediation Process. Jossey-Bass.

Moore, C. W., & Woodrow, P. J. (2010). Handbook of global and multicultural negotiation. John Wiley & Sons.

Ting-Toomey, S., & Dorjee, T. (2018). Communicating across cultures. Guilford Publications.

Trompenaars, F., & Hampden-Turner, C. (2012). Riding the Waves of Culture. Understanding Diversity in Global Business. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Von Glasersfeld, E. (1984). An introduction to radical constructivism. The invented reality1740, 28.

Schulz von Thun F. (2006-2007), Sztuka rozmawiania t. 1–4, t. 1: Analiza zaburzeń; t. 2: Rozwój osobowy; t. 3: Dialog wewnętrzny; t. 4: W porozumieniu z sobą i innymi – komunikacja i kompetencje społeczne. Wydawnictwo WAM, Kraków

Willi Jurg (2014) Związek dwojga. Psychoanaliza pary. Oficyna Fundament

[1] Translated into English from the Polish edition of the book Nordhelle G., Mediacja. Sztuka rozwiązywania konfliktów. 2010: 315.




In this article we will present four complex techniques that you may find useful at different points of the international mediation process.



In the previous article we mentioned the significance of perceptions, expectations and attributions that can affect the conflict resolution process. We stressed that it is important for the mediator to reflect on different possible meanings of words and actions and help the parties to develop shared understandings. In this context we can think of the role of the mediator as a ‘translator’ of communication where the technique of clarification is particularly useful. The mediator listens actively, observes the parties and tries to clarify intentions as well as doubts and misunderstandings. It is especially important to identify the principal needs and concerns of each party, along with the threats that they perceive towards these needs. Threats, both real and imagined, are a powerful escalator of negative reactions in conflict.

The following questions may be helpful:

  • How does each of the parties perceive the situation?
  • What was the intention of the person speaking / acting?
  • How was the message understood by the other party?
  • What needs and values are important and perceived as threatened?
  • Can we identify any negative attributions?
  • What emotions does this evoke?


Let’s recall the fictional example of a mediation between Hans and Carlos that we developed in the previous article. The parties have come to a procedural impasse over the expected deadline to reach a decision. Trying to help the parties get out of this impasse the mediator can try to reflect the exchange between them by presenting elements of the communication process.

The mediator can say to Hans: „Hans, when Carlos refuses to set a deadline for giving you a definite answer you perceive that as lack of respect for you, which makes you feel anxious, because you value predictability and that’s why you insist on setting a deadline.”

The mediator can then say to Carlos: “Carlos, you refuse to set a deadline for your answer to Hans because you perceive his suggestion as exerting pressure and trying to press you too much, which makes you feel irritated, because you value partnership and trust and that’s why you insist on not setting a deadline.”

After these statements the mediator should ask for the opinion of the parties: “What do you think about my perspective concerning your reactions?”

If Hans and Carlos would agree with the understanding of their motives proposed by the mediator, then they could focus on finding solutions which could take into account Hans’s need for predictability and assurance and Carlos’s need for partnership and trust. If Hans and Carlos would not try to understand each other’s perspective at this point, they might fall into a vicious circle which we will now look at more closely.


Vicious circle

The mediator’s role is oftentimes to help the parties in going from mutual accusations to mutual understanding, that is recognition of the other party’s thinking, intentions, motivations, needs, concerns and anxieties. The mediator may also assist in noticing and understanding the mechanisms that block the agreement. One of the techniques that helps the parties regain control over the conflict in which they are engaged is the vicious circle model described by Schulz von Thun (Schulz von Thun, 2008),This method has its roots in psychodynamic couple therapy and was initiated by Swiss psychotherapist Jürg Willi (Jürg Willi, 1990), who called this mechanism “collusion”. Schulz von Thun simplified the model and adapted it to working with interpersonal conflict.

The main assumption of the vicious circle concept is that the parties share responsibility for what is going on between them, although each of them feels disadvantaged by the other and is convinced that they are simply reacting to what the other person is doing. Another important characteristic of the vicious circle are strong emotions and a sense of helplessness that parties feel, because actions aimed at improving the situation in fact complicate it further and lead to escalation of the conflict. The „vicious circle” model consists of four elements: beliefs and actions of person A and beliefs and actions of person B.

Let’s imagine that two parties meet in mediation, where one is coming from a rather low-context and individualistic culture while the other from a rather high-context and collectivist culture. The first may be convinced that in conflict resolution you should be authentic and straightforward and speak directly what you mean. The second may be convinced that harmony in relationships is more important, thus you should speak indirectly in order to save face. We might observe the following dynamic in the relation between these parties:

The more directly person A is speaking, the more person B will feel attacked and thus will try to give indirect answers and avoid confrontation, which in turn will lead person A to feel being ignored, which will result in the reinforcement of their opinions and emotions, which will result in further avoidance on the part of person B et cetera…

The increasing frustration of the parties and their sense of helplessness can be stopped by the mediator, who may present his or her perspective regarding their communication. After indicating to the parties what their vicious circle possibly looks like, the mediator should ask them for their reflections and emotions towards the presented perspective. If the parties accept the mediator’s hypothesis, they may focus on resolutions that will allow them – when tension rises – to be more direct on the one side but keep face and maintain harmonious relations on the other. If the parties would like to correct something concerning the presented vicious circle mechanism, then they clarify it together with the mediator, until both parties accept the perspective, and only then the process can move forward to generating solutions.   

When diagnosing the vicious circle mechanism the mediator should focus on facts – the parties’ specific words and actions, as well as accusations towards each other, which are often related to beliefs about the other person – as in the presented example: “He is ignoring me” versus “He is attacking me”. When working with parties coming from different cultures and communication styles we also need to notice the meaning of certain values or norms of behaviour in the context of that specific culture. Going back to our example: it might be a good idea to point out that the opinions and actions of person A may be related to their communication style which is low-context, and the opinions and actions of person B may be related to their communication style which is high-context.


Here is another example of the vicious circle mechanism:

A manager from a marketing agency has contacted you in relation to a conflict in his team that has been escalating for a few weeks now. There has been a lot of tension between Ute – an employee who has been working in the company for a long time and Marika – her colleague who has recently joined the team. The company is in the process of producing 10 advertising films for a strategic client. The manager feels helpless when it comes to the conflict between his employees. Ute’s friend – also an experienced team member – has just threatened that she will quit her job if the boss does not take appropriate action. The manager asks you to help with mediation. During your initial talks with the parties you find out that Ute has been working in the company for many years, she cares about the company’s reputation and the good value of its products. She never improvises. She prepares very thoroughly for each project and makes sure that everything is perfectly sewn up. Ute thinks that Marika is chaotic, does not treat other people (including clients) seriously and needs to be constantly reminded about deadlines and schedules. Ute also expects Marika to prepare detailed scenarios for the films instead of improvising to a large extent. Marika on the other hand prefers to be spontaneous and have fun when working. She aims at creating something unique and special. She thinks that Ute is too rigid and inflexible, she also suspects that Ute may be suffering from burn-out so she is trying to make her feel more at ease. Marika thinks it’s more creative to develop scenarios together in joint-meetings, without earlier preparation. She also values improvisation. 

The mediator can suggest a summing-up of perspectives by presenting the vicious-circle mechanism to Ute and Marika:

Ute’s beliefs are: it is important to be reliable at work. It is important to take individual responsibility for one’s work. Marika is unreliable and irresponsible.

Ute’s actions are: reminding Marika about deadlines, demanding that Marika prepare detailed scenarios and stop improvising. 

Marika’s beliefs are: it is important to be original and flexible at work. It is important to profit from group work. Ute is burnt out, inflexible and bad at teamwork.

Marika’s actions: spontaneous work on the scenarios, working with improvisation.

If the parties accept this summary of their perspectives and the vicious circle they have been caught in, then they can move on to look for solutions that will make room both for reliability and uniqueness in their cooperation. Let’s move on now to another technique, also drawing on the work of Schulz von Thun - the value square model.


Value-development square model

The value square, or the square of development model, is another method developed by Friedmann Schulz von Thun (Schulz von Thun, 2008), that may support the diagnosis of the conflict situation but also redirect the attention of the parties to their own values and the values of the other person.   The model assumes that each value that we hold can have a constructive effect if it is expressed with moderation. However, if we start to exaggerate a value, it can lead to its devaluation and degeneration, which in turn may bring further negative consequences. For example religiousness may degenerate into fanaticism, trust into naiveness or tolerance into relativism. Moreover, according to this model, each value comes with a positive countervalue, called a “sister value”. Something like the yin-yang concept. For example, stability may be balanced with development, tolerance with commitment, and taking care of oneself with taking care of others. If people in conflict refer to counter values and a negative tension appears between them, they may start to accuse each other of holding degenerated values. So the value square is composed of two dimensions: mutual allegations referring to degenerated values and their underlying positive values.

Let’s think of an example. Imagine that you have been asked to mediate with a migrant family living in Germany in a conflict concerning their car selling business. The senior of the family started his career several dozen years ago as a car mechanic for a German employer but with time – thanks to his hard work and reliability – opened his first own car repair business and then a car showroom. Now – due to his age – he wants to withdraw from running the business and hand it over to his son. Unfortunately, they are unable to agree on the future strategy of the business. The senior values competence and reliability and prioritizes keeping to the well-established course of action. The son finds it important to look for new opportunities and be open to new solutions, so he prioritizes innovation.

In emotional arguments the son accuses his father of rigidness and lack of pragmatism while the father accuses his son of neglect and disregard for his work. A mediator listening to this exchange might sum-up by presenting the value square model. We can start with identifying the mutual allegations between the parties. Then we pose hypotheses concerning the underlying positive values that these allegations derive from. So the father may be accusing the son of neglect because he values the continuity and established way of action in his business as well as the stability, reliability and hard work that it has been built on. The son may be accusing the father of rigidness because he values pragmatism and openness to new perspectives as well as innovation, which is key to development - in his opinion. When the parties become open to these new perspectives and discover their positive counter values they might focus on maintaining a positive tension between these values and look for resolutions that will allow for running the business based on experience and stability on the one hand and opening to new perspectives and solutions on the other.



A last technique that we would like to present in this article is meta-dialogue. It works best in co-mediation, but can also be applied – although slightly differently - when there is one mediator. Meta dialogue is a technique derived from systemic couples and family therapy and is in essence ‘a dialogue on the dialogue’ (or a monologue, if we happen to use it in solo mediation). Applying meta-dialogue in co-mediation can serve as a model for communication between the parties. Mediators may use the differences between them to help the parties tackle these in their own interaction, for example showing them how to play out strategic choices or even disagreements as a tool for open dialogue and exploring needs. The key to the proper application of meta-dialogue is an attitude assuming full recognition of the subjectivity of the parties and their right to make their own decisions.

Meta-dialogue can be used at various stages of mediation. This technique is based on expressing the mediators’ thoughts and observations in the presence of the parties in the form of a dialogue between mediators. A mediator can start a meta-dialogue like this: “We would like to think aloud about what has just been said. Is that ok with you if we shared between us what we see and hear happening here? Maybe you’ll find something useful in it but you may also disagree with our perceptions. We’ll ask you about it afterwards. You can interrupt us at any time and we will be at your disposal immediately.”

If the mediator is working alone, he or she may speak to him or herself aloud, if mediators are working in co-mediation they turn to each other, also turning their chairs, and start talking about the ongoing mediation. Changing the seating position is a visible and tangible sign that’s aimed at drawing a clear line between the conflict resolution system – where both mediators and parties are involved, and separating it from the mediators’ working system. Then both mediators – careful to do this in an empowering and respectful way - describe what they see happening in mediation and how they understand it, for example in terms of interests not fully articulated by the parties.  Mediators share their observations in such a way that the parties can choose what suits them, what makes sense to them although they wouldn’t be able or willing to articulate it themselves, and what they reject, see differently and what it is that mediators don’t fully grasp.

During the meta-dialogue mediators pay attention to any verbal and non-verbal signals coming from the parties. If they notice a change, they may either wait for further reactions of the party, for example by articulating it, or they take a break and ask questions. Afterwards, when discussing the content of the meta-dialogue we may pose the following questions to each of the parties:

  • What did you find interesting or stimulating in our conversation?
  • What resonated with you in any way? What made sense to you?
  • What was missing? What else should we have mentioned?
  • What didn't make sense? What else would you like to hear?


In applying indirect communication about the parties rather than with the parties, the mediators may be able to reframe the parties’ behaviours in the dispute or offer different perspectives based on positive connotation. Moreover, the parties find this way of communication more friendly than direct comments, because then they can make a choice whether to distance themselves from these observations, accept them partially and expand on them or fully accept the proposed perspective. We often hear from our parties when finalizing a mediation that respectful mindfulness and communication in the presence of the parties was crucial to fostering self-confidence and flexibility, and therefore an impulse for change. We often notice that some people adopt a meta-dialogue ‘culture’ themselves.



The aim of mediation is to help the parties develop a durable and mutually acceptable agreement. In order to achieve this, the mediator can help the parties expand the “negotiation pie” by improving their understanding of both their own interests and those of the other party. When it comes to intercultural conflicts the parties – drawing on different values and assumptions – often perceive, interpret and evaluate what is going on between them differently. This often leads to the escalation of negative emotions and the stiffening of negotiation positions. We hope that you will find the techniques selected and presented in this article helpful in your everyday mediation practice especially when it comes to dealing with negative emotions and assisting the parties in building a sense of understanding, trust and the readiness to cooperate.



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