One of the newest waves of psychological research and practice involves the concept of “Mindfulness,” and how it affects everything in our lives from relationships to bodily health.  Mindfulness is the idea of being fully “present” in a moment – being able to calmly and lucidly focus on the stimuli around us, to fully “take in” moments as they occur, and to be able to train our brains to perceive and process situations more fluidly.

Based originally in many Eastern traditions of meditation, the concept has evolved into highly organized programs for stress reduction, even the treatment of disorders such as bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and ADHD, among others.  Many clinical psychologists currently use Mindfulness techniques to help patients more ably cope with stressful life-situations and problems.  In fact, neuroscientists have found that the brains of individuals who regularly practice Mindfulness refocusing techniques actually gain tissue mass in the areas of the brain responsible for our abilities to relate to others and feel empathy.  Participants have found that practicing Mindfulness techniques have revolutionized  clients’ personal relationships, helped them become more assertive, and more “in tune” with the day-to-day experience of their everyday lives.  Some of the key concepts of Mindfulness can help mediators, too…

One of the central tenants of Mindfulness is being able to purposefully pay attention to one particular thing at a time, without hesitation.  This is harder than you may think.  Ever lie awake at night and not been able to control your racing thoughts? Yeah, I thought so.  Or, have you ever tried to sit quietly in a room, void of any distractions, and clear your mind for more than thirty seconds? If you haven’t, try it some time.  If you’re an average person (and hey, maybe you’re above-average in this regard!) you will quickly find it almost impossible to “quiet” the ephemeral thoughts that inevitably flow through your mind like an imaginary conveyor belt.  Most of us rush through almost every day of our lives, and are constantly surrounded by numerous stimuli competing for our attention, both internal and external.  Everything from our wife telling us she needs us to pick up some groceries to the ticking of a clock in the background of the room are stimuli our minds must process all the time, 24/7, even while we are asleep.  Mindfulness training helps us prioritize what thoughts we focus on in given moments, and thereby increases our agency over how and what we prioritize as we “experience” our lives.  For mediators, this means being able to wholly focus on all of the communication we perceive throughout the mediation process – whether it is a verbal indication from a client that they are willing to offer $325,000, a non-verbal cue from the lawyer that indicates we might need to step out of the room for a moment, or anything else within the vast layers of information always flowing our direction as we work.

I heartily believe that one of the three biggest factors to success in mediation is developing the ability to perceive multiple levels of communication, at the same time, as best as possible.  When most people communicate, they say multiple things at once, whether or not they know it. When a toddler points to their sibling while standing over a broken vase and says, “He did it!” (even though mom knows full well that the toddler bumped the vase while running around the house), the toddler may also be saying “I’m willing to lie to get out of trouble,” and “I don’t want to get into trouble,” and “I care more about my well-being right now than my sibling’s,” etc.  And maybe the toddler can’t make eye contact with his mom because he’s lying, and he is this thus communicating, “I feel regret for lying to you and cannot confront you directly while I’m doing it.” There’s a lot in most seemingly simple interactions, and as mediators it is our job to try to interpret as much as we can about all levels of communication we perceive throughout the mediation.

Mindfulness can help us as mediators more efficaciously perceive and interact with the communicative cues we perceive throughout mediations by helping us increase what psychologists like to call our “attentional capacities,” or ability to focus on one or several things for a period without distraction.  I’m not telling anyone to go to therapy; in fact, most Mindfulness exercises are simple and can be taught at home either with a written guide or instructional CD.  For instance, simply meditating every so often (or better yet, once a day) for a few minutes each session, has shown to drastically increase the ability of participants to focus their attention when required.  As mediators, this means increasing our ability to focus on what clients are saying – even if the mediation has lasted 10 hours , even if we are low on sleep, even if our minds would otherwise be distracted by the unproductive caucus we just had with plaintiff, etc., etc., etc…

Mindfulness techniques can not only allow us to pay better attention to clients, they can empower us to more readily show empathy to clients, and help clients feel “heard” by us as their neutral.  As I mentioned before, practicing some simple Mindfulness techniques can actually build brain capacity to become more empathetic. Not only that, but Mindfulness training can help us more readily perceive very subtle cues from clients about their hidden interests and values – cues that we might have otherwise missed as our brains tried to prioritize their multiple communications at once.  In this way, Mindfulness also helps us build rapport with our clients as they feel better heard and appreciated by their neutrals.

A lot of people flinch at the idea of “therapy” or “meditation.” However, while Mindfulness training has elements of both, it fits neither word as most people take their connotations to imply.  I’m not suggesting some sort of prescription for psychological therapy.  This is more occupational training than anything else – if there are techniques out there that might help us become more attuned to our clients and thus effective as mediators, then those techniques may be worth considering as professional neutrals.  John Kabat-Zinn is one of the pioneers of the field, and has written many books and articles on the subject, as well as helped thousands of individuals become more effective both professionally and personally through his training workshops.  I encourage you to pick up a book on the topic, take a glance.  See if it piques your interest.  You never know, trying some Mindfulness techniques may just help you in areas of your life far beyond simply mediation.

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.