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Use Mirroring to Lead Parties in Mediation

Mirroring is a mediation technique that capitalizes on the fact that people naturally tend to reflect what they observe. When you see someone in pain, you’re likely to wince in empathy. When you witness other people pitching in to help someone, you’re more likely to lend a hand.

Mirroring enables mediators, in a very short period of time, to build trust between themselves and each of the parties and then to use that trust to help the parties inch their way toward trusting each other.

Mirroring is a two-way street, and you should take advantage of it in both directions. First, behave the way you want the parties in the mediation to behave so they can mirror your behavior. Second, use mirroring to reflect the empathy you feel for the distress that the parties physically manifest in their facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.

How to use mirroring

To use mirroring to model behavior, be the person you want the participants to be more like:

  • Be open-minded, authentic, and transparent.

  • Be reliable. Explain how you do what you do and then do it the way you said you’d do it.

  • Treat the parties with respect. Find some part of yourself, no matter how small, in each person at the table.

  • Care genuinely about the parties and the problem they’re trying to solve.

  • Listen carefully and indicate not only that you understand but also that you empathize.

    Don’t try to fake empathy. Conscious efforts to empathize often come across as inauthentic. Try to put yourself in that person’s shoes to really get a sense of what he’s feeling. If you succeed, you’ll feel and communicate a genuine sense of empathy.

  • Be patient with the parties and persistent in your attempts to help them solve their problem.

  • Demonstrate curiosity by asking nonthreatening, open-ended questions.

  • Express how open and receptive you are to what each party is saying by relaxing your body and keeping your arms open. If you clasp your arms across your chest, frown, or fidget in your chair, you’re experiencing underlying feelings that you need to acknowledge and deal with. Otherwise, the parties will sense your anxiety and mirror it.

The biological basis for mirroring

According to some neuroscientists, certain brain cells, called mirror neurons, replay in people’s minds the actions of someone they’re watching. These scientists speculate that this near simultaneous replay permits people to predict what someone is about to do. When you watch someone pull back his arm, for instance, the re-creation of the event in your mind allows you to imagine that he’s about to throw something.

In a way, this simultaneous replay makes a person experience what the other person experiences — the very definition of empathy. In extreme cases, someone may even share symptoms of a loved one in distress, as when a husband of a pregnant wife experiences sympathy pains or morning sickness.

The fact that some people feel another person’s joy, fear, or pain so intensely that they unconsciously mirror the other person’s external manifestations of distress during intense conversation seems a likely effect of the activity of the mirror neurons in the brain.

You’ll most likely be liked by liking, be trusted by being trustworthy, and be empathic by truly feeling the other person’s experience.

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