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April 2024
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Commanding, Not Demanding: A Mediator’s Perspective

How I use poise and presence to facilitate solutions to disputes.

By Amber Hill Anderson

Woman smiling wearing white shirt and blue jacketAmber Hill Anderson

Sneaking a glance at the people in the room, I take a deep breath to steady my nerves. I roll my shoulders back, straighten my posture, lift my chin and face the people who have come to me for help. Pausing to read the room, I register the hurt on their faces, the way they have positioned themselves away from each other in the small room and the deafening silence.

I quickly identify and mentally file away the physical, demographic similarities and differences between each person and myself. Then, in a calm, friendly voice I say, “Welcome to mediation. My name is Amber.”

As a person who is petite, has a high voice and is often the youngest in the room, I have worked on my ability to command attention in ways that are authentic and effective. I practice these skills in both my Toastmasters meetings and my work as a professional mediator. Learning how to command the attention of a room requires having confidence in yourself, knowing the rules and understanding when to break the norm.

Know Thyself

Mediation is a conflict-resolution process that can be used as an alternative to going to court. The biggest difference is that the parties decide their own outcome with the facilitated support of the mediator, rather than a judge or jury making a decision. The mediator helps the parties clarify the issues, consider options and reach a settlement.

As a facilitator, you don’t have to be tall, loud or demanding to take control of a room. Since I possess none of these features, I have cultivated and focused on other techniques to command people’s attention. I have walked into a mediation room distracted or slumped over, and I felt the participants pull away right from the start. But when I walk into a room with confidence and prepared to be attentive, my demeanor sets the stage for successful mediations. You need to establish the right tone to set the stage for a successful conversation.

When I am calm and clear about what participants can expect from the dispute process, I gain their confidence as they take cues from my composure. While the conduct of each participant and content of the mediation are not necessarily in my control, I honor the people and their interests by facilitating the mediation confidently.

Authenticity and cultural sensitivity, or lack thereof, is one of the quickest ways to gain or lose a room. If you do not know how you present authentically or what you do that works well, ask a diverse group of people in your life (like other Toastmasters!) for feedback.

When I lack knowledge about a particular culture or language used by mediation participants, I am honest and upfront about it. By acknowledging instances when I think a cultural misunderstanding is occurring, I remain authentic, engaged and curious with participants. Sometimes it’s important that I slow down conversations to make sure I understand the context for everything being discussed.

Know the Rules, Then Break Them

In Toastmasters, we often evaluate each other based on our ability to demonstrate good public speaking rules, such as standing with straight posture, exploring vocal variety and using intentional movements. But once the rules are understood and known, breaking them can be effective and attention-grabbing.

My Toastmasters club is relatively formal and filled with high-achieving people. We have professional public speakers who really know their craft. To rise to the occasion, I dress more professionally and conservatively than usual on Toastmasters days. One day I showed up to speak at a meeting wearing a casual, red-flannel pajama outfit. I was giving a satirical speech about entrepreneurship, so I purposely deviated from the traditional professionalism to accentuate that satirical quality. Intentionally breaking the norm with my physical appearance was part of my message of poking fun at a serious subject. Members of my club noticed my outfit right away and recognized the link between my clothes and the speech’s satire.

One male and two females sitting and talking

Similarly, in mediation, when a mediator breaks a rule, it can be effective when done purposefully and in the service of the participants. As with many situations in life that involve communication, you learn to be flexible. (Some rules, however, should never be broken by the mediator, such as confidentiality.) The general format of mediation is to begin with a summary of the roles, rules and possible outcomes. This establishes clarity and the same base of knowledge around mediation for all parties present. However, during one mediation, just as I was beginning the summary, one of the participants blurted out to the other party, “Can I just pay you?” Traditionally, people come to mediation because there is an aspect of a disagreement they have not been able to resolve on their own. In this case, rather than rigidly adhering to mediation rules and process, I adapted the conversation to the discussion the parties had just begun having with each other.

“Once the rules are understood and known, breaking them can be effective and attention-grabbing.”

Demanding they adhere to my process would not have been effective or helpful. They did not need a facilitated discussion of their interests. Knowing neither party would be well served by a prolonged conversation, I focused the facilitation on the self-determination and agreement of the parties.

Knowing yourself and understanding the rules are important components of commanding the room. Both principles require thoughtful consideration and conversation long before taking the stage or a leadership role. Once the techniques are mastered, however, purposefully breaking the rules can also be an effective tool. When done well and intentionally, circumventing accepted (and expected) conventions will alert your audience and grab their attention. Know yourself and know the rules—and sometimes break them.

Hear from Toastmaster Victoria McQuarrie to learn how she gained confidence in her voice and in her speaking skills through Toastmasters.

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