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Non-Adversarial Communication

Arlene Brownell, Thomas Bache-Wiig
On Mediation (January 2020)
Healing the World

Mindful, non-adversarial communication is one of the best tools we have found for seeking Truth and for seeing “that of God” in ourselves and each other. For Quakers, the result of such seeking is a life lived according to the guidance of the Light, and a life that offers ministry to others, which includes vocal ministry. Historically, another important form of Quaker ministry has been for Friends to place themselves in conflict situations and engage in peaceful actions to heal harm.

The essence of mediation is a neutral third party helping two or more people resolve their conflicts by guiding the participants through a problem-solving process. There are two main types of mediation: distributive and interest-based. In distributive mediation, also known as “win-lose” or “fixed pie,” each participant takes a position about how to divide up the contested assets and works to get the most value from a limited amount. In contrast, in interest-based mediation, also known as “win-win,” the focus is on the needs, reasons, and values that underly the positions of the parties. Typically, interest-based mediations are more open to a broader range of strategies to resolve the conflicts. Many mediators use a mix of these two styles, but lean primarily toward one or the other. In either type of mediation, when successful, the mediation culminates in the parties resolving their differences and reaching agreements that they will honor.

As interest-based mediators, we have used the skills of Mindful Non-Adversarial Communication successfully in over one thousand hours of mediation to lessen people’s painful emotional reactions to their conflicts. Our goal has been to help the parties resolve their substantive issues and to increase the peace between them.

Non-Adversarial Communication (NAC) is based on Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, a communication process using specific language, and involving emotional intelligence skills, i.e., the ability to identify and manage emotions.

Typically, and especially when strong feelings come up, people tend to focus on content and ignore the human reactions to the topics being discussed, the underlying internal experience. When we speak, criticism, judgment, evaluation, and blame are so common that we’re hardly aware of their presence in our conversations. The process of shifting away from these deeply ingrained habits of adversarial thinking and language – and toward a non-threatening style of communication – begins with the mediator seeking to understand the parties’ deep, fundamental truths.

Unlike most communication which focuses on content, ideas, or opinions, in NAC, participants strive to focus their attention on what’s going on beneath the words. For example:

Typical way of speaking: “When you were away last Wednesday and Thursday, your dog barked and howled all night, and it kept me awake both nights. I love dogs, but I can’t stand this. You’ve got to figure out a way to keep him quiet, or you’re going to have to get rid of him.”

Speaking using NAC: “When you were away last Wednesday and Thursday, I was awakened at least five times by a dog I heard barking and howling both nights, and I think it was your dog. I love dogs, but I’m frustrated and exhausted because I need a good night’s sleep to think clearly at work. Would you be willing to shut the windows on the side of your house closest to mine before you leave town this week, so we can figure out if that solves the problem?”

When practicing NAC, a person strives to speak and listen in ways that seem most likely to lead toward understanding of the deeper, fundamental human needs of the people involved in the negotiations (fundamental needs such as respect, fairness, recognition, safety, appreciation, independence, contribution to the well-being of others, etc.). Mediators use NAC skills to help the parties understand themselves and each other, think creatively, express their truths in ways that the other can hear, and make decisions that enable the parties to resolve their conflict.

As appropriate throughout the mediation process, the mediator listens to each participant to the conflict, and then uses NAC to reflect back and/or to reframe certain verbal statements – aiming toward deeper levels of communication – to help those involved in the conflict understand each other’s needs and interests. In order to reach agreements that all parties will keep, the mediator guides the parties to create solutions that meet at least some of the needs of each person involved in the conflict.

Two key factors affect the ability of people to participate successfully in mediation: intensity of emotion and personal importance of the issue being discussed. As conflict increases in intensity, trust erodes, and parties move further away from a problem-solving focus. A range of such conflict intensities is illustrated in this diagram:

When emotional intensity is high, the higher functioning part of the human brain automatically shuts down. In this state, one cannot think flexibly or creatively. When emotions flare and the issue is personally important, one will likely resist, opting either for no action or insisting on his/her own way of resolving differences, instead of working towards solutions that work for everyone involved.

One’s ability to work cooperatively is greatest when she/he cares about the issue and his/her emotions are “in check.” NAC provides a skill set of communication tools that are used throughout the mediation process to continually calm escalating emotions.

NAC involves a vocabulary of non-adversarial language and phrasing that the mediator integrates into the conflict-resolution process, helping the mediator listen for and articulate the parties’ emotional reactions to what’s occurring, and to help identify the underlying fundamental human needs that might be giving rise to the emotional responses.

The NAC model – 1) maintaining Intention to understand and 2) paying attention to Observation of 2a) Feelings,
2b) Needs,
and 2c) Requests – is easy to learn. However, in an emotionally charged situation, the skills can be challenging for any peacemaker to integrate into the mediation process. Each component in the NAC model involves consciously thinking, speaking, and listening very differently from our habitual adversarial ways of communicating. The model usually requires mediators to practice and develop the skills in safe, less intense situations, before using them in highly charged conflicts.

NAC can be thought of as a type of active listening or a set of paraphrasing skills that carries the intention to understand rather than fix. The mediator uses NAC to reflect the speaker’s experience by first clarifying what the speaker saw or heard (observation), and then by confirming that the mediator accurately understands the speaker’s deeper, fundamental internal reactions to what they observed (reactions like the speaker’s feelings or the speaker’s needs, met or unmet). This process is shown in the following example of a divorce mediation between spouses who were locked in a bitter conflict over dividing up assets and debts:

After several contentious meetings requiring the mediator’s assistance to get back on track, the couple was able to come to several agreements. However, after a two-week break, when they returned for another meeting, the wife began backing away from the financial agreements they had been struggling to reach. As a side comment, the wife mentioned that she had been in a traffic accident between the last meeting and the current session. The mediators asked her to describe what had happened.

Wife: I was stopped at a traffic light and suddenly saw a car coming from behind without slowing down. I don’t know what the driver was doing, but he rear-ended me. I don’t think he ever applied his brakes. Thank goodness our children weren’t with me.

Mediator: When you think about being in that accident, I’m guessing that you feel scared and vulnerable, and that you need safety and security. Is that true?

Wife (after a brief pause): Yes. I was shaking badly when the police arrived, but fortunately, I was able to walk away without any serious injuries. My car is totaled, though. So now I’m left dealing with the insurance company, and I have to figure out what to do for a car.

Mediator: It sounds like you are feeling alone, without a back-up, and you need security and support right now. Is my
understanding accurate?

Wife: (with tears in her eyes, silently nods “yes.”)

Once she connected to her feelings and needs, the wife calmly reviewed the financial agreements the couple had discussed in previous meetings, and realized she felt comfortable with the decisions they had made.

The Non-Adversarial Communication Model:  NAC consists of five components for the mediator to incorporate into the mediation process. It includes the parties’ experience of life, in addition to the content in conflict. The model is summarized here:

INTENTION: An Attitude/Spirit/North Star that guides how one speaks and listens

Intention is NOT: wanting to persuade, fix, change, convince, punish, get even, be right

Intention IS: wanting to listen deeply to understand what is deeply important to each person involved: yourself and the others

Intention IS: wanting to see each person’s needs as deserving of respect

Intention IS: wanting to create solution(s) to meet at least some needs of everyone with a stake in the outcome

OBSERVATION: What we see, hear, or think, free of any interpretation, evaluation, judgment, blame, or criticism

Observation IS: the simple truth without embellishment or “story”

Observation IS: most effective if short, 40 words or less

Observation IS: the outer world coming in through our senses, our thoughts and self-talk

FEELINGS: Internal, physiological, automatic, unconscious reactions to what we see, hear, or think about what we see or hear (e.g., enlivened, happy, hopeful, curious, loving, confused, disconnected, mad, sad, scared)

Feelings ARE: present even when we are not consciously aware of them

Feelings ARE: universal to the human species, and unique to individuals in each situation

Feelings ARE: internal experience of delight or distress when needs are met or unmet

NEEDS: Inborn deep, fundamental yearnings for qualities that would enrich our lives (e.g., independence, interdependence, celebration, integrity, meaning, peace, physical well-being)

Needs ARE NOT: a deficiency, something lacking, a neediness

Needs ARE: one’s own deep internal experience

Needs ARE: universal to the human species, and unique to individuals in each situation

Needs ARE: yearnings are free of attachments and do not specify how, by whom, by when, or where you would like a need to be met

REQUESTS: Strategies we believe will meet our needs

Requests ARE Invitations, NOT demands

Requests ARE: most likely to be successful if they attempt to meet at least some of the needs of everyone involved

Requests ARE: made of our self, of someone else, or of both

Requests ARE: (1) positive – what we want (rather than what we don’t want), (2) concrete, (3) do-able, (4) time bound

Non-Adversarial Communication can be a valuable tool to help interest-based mediators and mediation parties navigate the emotional, substantive, and procedural labyrinth of conflict resolution. NAC is a set of skills that requires practice to fully internalize and use effectively, but its uses are not limited to mediation. NAC can be beneficial for improving self-clarity and insight, for preventing everyday communication from going off-track into conflict, as well as for regaining good will once conflict occurs. For Quakers, whether mediators or not, awareness of one’s own or another’s internal experience can help us see more of that of God in everyone.  D

Arlene Brownell, Ph.D., is retired from a career as a social scientist, mediator, organizational consultant, and executive coach for the federal government.

Thomas Bache-Wiig is retired from his work as a mediator, coach, organizational consultant, and Visiting Program Manager for the federal government’s Conflict Resolution Skills course.

Arlene and Tom have been married for over forty years. They are members of Boulder Friends Meeting (IMYM), and co-authors of
Non-Adversarial Communication: Speaking and Listening from the Heart (2007).

nonviolent communication mediation Reconciliation

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