Has anyone ever given you “bad news” but with a smile? How did you react? … Let me try again: Has someone ever given you “bad news,” but they did it in such a way that “in the moment” you actually couldn’t help but feel “good” about them telling you? Or at least, that you couldn’t automatically become angry, even though normally you would have? It’s a rare gift to be able to deliver “negative” messages and have the recipient thank you for it. But I have encountered a few people who have the knack. One of the skills people like this have is that they know how to manage their non-verbal communication. Humans are programmed to respond to negative (and positive) non-verbal expressions in very powerful ways. From simply interacting with other people on a daily basis, most of us learn from a young age to be aware of the non-verbal cues we receive when people speak to us.

But non-verbal communication cuts both ways: In fact, research has shown that negative non-verbal communication is usually much more “impactful” on people than positive. This means that while there are rare instances that someone can speak “bad messages” with a “positive feeling,” it is much more common for people to speak “positive messages” or even “neutral messages” with a negative feeling. Of course, as mediators we’ve all learned that the level of “context” a culture uses to interpret spoken words varies widely from place-to-place, but I’ve found that mediators are not taught enough about the raw power that facial expressions, especially negative facial expressions, can have on a person’s interpretation of words spoken.

Somewhere during your education you probably learned about something called the “fight or flight” response that sometimes the human body can “kick into” when provoked. What does this have to do with mediation, or with facial expressions? Well, when we are exposed to stimuli that evokes “fear” or “anger” different bodily systems kick into gear and do things like dilate our pupils, constrict our blood vessels, increase heart rate, etc. But what most high school health classes do not teach us is that simply being exposed to a “negative” facial expression often automatically activates many of the same physiological responses we call “fight or flight,” and that can have big ramifications both in everyday communication but also, in “conflict” situations such as mediation negotiations.

Now, I’m not saying that if a client in mediation sees one negative facial expression that you can expect them to automatically jump out of their chair, ready for an altercation. But, what I am saying is that most people are elevated into a heightened state of physical “arousal” when they experience negative facial expressions. Internally, this means that areas of their brain called the amygdalae activate and that their body becomes prepared – in a sense – for “battle.” When a person “switches” into this state, lots of things happen. The most relevant effects being that the person will automatically interpret any information they perceive with more skepticism. Furthermore, they are much more likely to react strongly and impulsively to anything they “perceive” as against their interests.

We’ve all been angry before. And, most likely, in previous states of anger you have found that you have said/done things you “regret later,” or perhaps you even refused to listen to others’ words because your anger clouded your judgment. Researchers have shown that even small – subliminal – facial expressions expressing anger or hostility triggers a state of arousal in others who perceive those facial expressions. As humans we are designed to “become alert” when any signs of “danger” (or, “negativity”) may exist around us – and this includes any “signs” that are perceivable in the people around us. Not only that, but our brains process negative emotions more quickly than they process positive emotion, and we’re not always consciously aware that our minds are becoming “alerted” in this way! This has big implications for mediation, because often people can enter mental states which preclude them from “perceiving” mediation processes (say, offers during a negotiation) to the best of their ability.

So then, it stands to reason that as mediators we ought to try to limit any impact of “negative” facial expressions in mediation, right? Easier said than done, and especially when one or more sides either 1) has a tendency towards confrontation, or 2) is emotionally involved in the case. And even if parties don’t fit those profiles, in every case parties find themselves in “conflict situations,” which in and of themselves heighten our minds’ sensitivities to potential negative signals. Indeed, any perceived, negative facial expression communicated from one party to another, or – even worse – communicated between the mediator and a party, can “prime” the minds of mediation participants for “a fight,” instead of allowing them to focus on reaching lasting settlement. This means that those participants will begin to slowly (even unconsciously!) interpret others’ words with skepticism. Furthermore, those participants will be much more likely to make strong, “rash” decisions such as entrenching in their offers, not budging from stalemate, or, worst of all, simply walking out of the room.

Luckily, even when unproductive facial expressions creep into a mediation, these psychophysiological processes can be “reversed” – to an extent – and it is very possible to quickly reorient mediation participants and thereby minimize many effects of their automatic psychological responses. I have a few “tips” I like to remember when I sense that a client may be transitioning into a heightened state of “alertness” during mediation.

Tip 1 – Smile Quickly. The first thing I do when I sense a disgruntled mediation participant is to smile – before I do anything else. I have literally trained myself to respond to the negative facial expression of a participant with a smile or otherwise positive facial expression. It’s amazing the power of a smile: Sure, we are “programmed” as humans to have strong physical and psychological responses to negative emotions, but the other side of that coin is that as humans we also desire to believe the most positive interpretation of a situation possible when given the opportunity. We want to believe that stress/fear/anger is not necessary; and a good, genuine smile from a mediator whom a party respects as neutral can go a long way to alleviating early anxieties for all parties.

Tip 2 – Redirect Onto Facts. This goes for almost any situation where I find it necessary to guide the focus of participants from their current emotional states to moving forward. I like to call it guiding them from “preoccupation” to “progression.” One of the surest ways to guide participants away from any perceived negativity is to quickly and diplomatically interject a fact or figure pertinent to the case. For instance, if during an initial joint session I find that a party has potentially communicated a negative facial expression, I will 1) smile, and then, 2) quickly reiterate to the clients a point about the process of the mediation (say, a point on confidentiality). On a neuropsychological level, my goal here is to quickly activate the cortical areas of parties’ brains (the seats of higher-level functioning, logic, and areas of the brain that research has shown can dull or even negate the activation of emotional/”fight-or-flight” responses). It doesn’t really matter what I say – the more important point is that I have hopefully redirected a party from becoming subconsciously or consciously “alerted,” or distracted, by the non-verbal cues of another party.

Tip 3 – Quickly Find an Excuse to Caucus. This may seem obvious, but I have watched mediators continue to push through joint sessions even when it was apparent that parties’ non-verbal (and, in some instances, even direct verbal communication) was causing both sides to enter heightened states of psychological arousal. I always like to caucus with parties during negotiations anyway, but it is especially important to be able to quickly assess when and how to make a quick transition to caucus – because not doing so can sometimes spell the end of negotiations before they even begin. If I observe that a party’s facial expression may be conveying negative stances, and that smiling and even guiding parties towards a “focus on facts” is not changing the demeanor of the communications, I will quickly finish my remarks in abbreviated form, switch to caucus, then extrapolate any points I did not cover in joint session with the parties separately. I also try to catch the party who received (i.e., the one who did not convey) the negative facial expressions and chit-chat with them while they walk to their caucus room. I do this especially if the “recipient” is a defendant and I will thus be meeting with them second. I don’t want parties sitting alone while their minds consciously or unconsciously mull over any negative interpretations they may have perceived in joint session. My goal is to switch their train of thought and guide their mood before they even enter their caucus room.

While as humans we are preconditioned to react quickly and strongly to negative stimuli, as long as we recognize the natural dispositions of our clients and react with swift, diplomatic interventions, it is usually quite possible to not only guide the non-verbal communications of parties in joint session but also to make up for those (hopefully rare) times when we think we may have communicated messages through our facial expressions that we did not intend to communicate. At the end of the day, we as mediators are simply humans trying to help other humans resolve their disputes – and it is therefore incumbent upon us to be aware of and adaptable to what basic truths about human nature we can, in order to help clients move forward towards lasting resolution. This is especially true because sometimes clients’ perceptions of negotiations can be strongly, subconsciously shaped by their innate “programming” to respond to particular cues.

One last point: To have knowledge of subconscious processes that may or may not be activated in our clients’ minds is a great tool for us as mediators, but also a great responsibility. This is about guiding clients towards mindsets which allow them to consider potential settlement opportunities in the best way possible. This is about helping clients “move beyond” their own ways of thinking and reacting, and be able to make decisions that are healthy for themselves and their organizations. This is about being a true “mediator” – someone who understands and undertakes the role of helping clients perceive and engage with the mediation process in the best way possible.

by Zachary Ulrich

Zachary P. Ulrich is currently a researcher for Pepperdine School of Law’s Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. He holds a JD, Masters in Dispute Resolution, and Masters in Psychology (Clinical). Zach is an alumnus of General Electric’s highly-esteemed Financial Management Program, where he held several financial analysis positions of increasing responsibility and completed a graduate-level education in business management and operations. He has published over twenty-five articles and commentaries on organizational conflict resolution and mediation psychology.