How to Apply Nonverbal Techniques During Mediation: Gathering Information

The information and techniques in this article are from Barbara Madonik’s book, “I hear what you say, but what are you telling me?” (pg. 62-63) Wiley, Oct. 6, 2001.

Gathering useful information is one of the most challenging tasks set to mediators.  The following tools can be used by mediators to access information that is needed for a successful resolution, but may not be presented clearly by participants initially.

Recognize Bracket Negotiating

Sometimes, participants in mediation will have a specific financial settlement amount in mind.  Bracketing is a negotiation technique that some clients will use to try to get that figure.  When people are bracketing, they state a much higher sum than their desired amount, believing that the other person will automatically offer too low of a sum and by negotiating, they will be met in the middle.  Mediators should be aware of this common negotiating tactic and intervene appropriately.

Employing the Columbo Technique

Barbara Madonik coined this term after a TV detective (named Columbo) who used an awkward mannerisms and appearances as a clever tool.  Sometimes, it is advantageous to the mediator to appear pedestrian and start with a soft approach, rather than dressing to impress and asking pointed questions.  By employing the Columbo technique effectively, mediators can reduce the parties feelings of threat and confrontation.  Comfortable participants are important to a successful mediation.


A common saying in conflict studies is, “an argument is not always what it appears to be about,” meaning that sometimes the real issue is hidden below the superficial words people use to express themselves initially.  Onionskinning is the use of persistent and sequential questions that are aimed at getting to the center of the problem little by little.  By employing this technique, mediators can uncover hidden issues that may have held participants back from a successful resolution if they were never revealed.

Recognizing a Wedding Dress

Once, Barbara Madonik was involved in a mediation that was almost derailed by a participant’s hidden agenda.  When discussing monetary compensation, the client offered a figure that was unsubstantiated by the conflict at hand.  Eventually, Madonik discovered that the participant was hoping to get the cost of a wedding dress covered by the mediation, even though the conflict at hand had nothing to do with the wedding.  Recognizing when participants have goals that may influence the mediation process negatively is an important skill for a mediator to have.

Minimizing Door Knob Issues

Have you ever been involved in a mediation that seems to be resolved, and then one of the parties brings up an issue as everyone is ready to walk out of the room?  That is a door knob issue.  Participants withhold information for many reasons.  Mediators should look for nonverbal cues that do not match what participants are saying.  For example, if a participant has their arms crossed and is frowning while saying, “Yes”, the mediator should consider this a clue that there may be more information to be gathered before a lasting agreement can be reached by all parties.

In the comments section below, tell us how you have used any of these techniques successfully in the past, or how you plan to implement them in the future.