How to Apply Nonverbal Techniques in Mediation: Clearing Hurdles

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. 64-69) Wiley, Oct. 6, 2001.

Knowing how to circumvent obstacles to the mediation process is one of the secrets to a great mediators’ success. Often, parties involved in conflict have habitual response patterns which they bring with them to mediation.  The following techniques are tools that can be used to move the conversation forward and overcome barriers resulting from past miscommunication:

As if

This technique requires a little imagination, but can yield amazing results.  Mediators who use this technique will ask parties who believe that they are faced with insurmountable barriers to imagine a world in which those barriers were overcome and then to describe it in detail.  Sometimes, this reveals a path forward which was previously invisible to participants.


Backing is a technique which Madonik herself invented.  Participants should be asked to visualize their problem as a physical object sitting in front of them. Then, they should be directed to take the problem in their hand and drop it over their shoulder. This technique is helpful for parties who are laser focused on one specific issue to move past that issue by breaking their focus.

Crumpled Paper

This technique is helpful both in private caucus and also with all of the parties in conflict present. Most commonly, it is used to deal with issues that have nothing to do with the mediation at hand, but are impeding its process. The mediator using this technique should give participants their own piece of paper and ask them to write all of their troublesome issues on it. Then, the parties should crumple up the papers and throw them away.  This is a very simple, yet transformative way to signal that it is time to focus on the task at hand.

Hanging Balloons

My favorite technique of Madonik’s is called Hanging Balloons. This is best used when parties involved in a mediation raise issues that are relevant to the process, but it would be counterproductive to discuss them at the moment they are mentioned. A skilled mediator using this technique will first thank the party that brought up the issue.  This step should not be skipped because it helps parties feel acknowledged and not like they are being passed over in favor of the other participant(s). Then the mediator will ask the party who brought up the issue if it, “would be acceptable to that party to hang the issue up.”  At this point, mediators should feel free to make an upwards gesture representing that the issue is still there, but will come down at a more appropriate time.  Some mediators will write these issues down to be sure that they are addressed before the end of the mediation.

It is important to remember as a third party assisting in the conflict resolution process that solutions can be hidden right behind a stubborn issue.  Having tools such as Backing, Crumpled Paper, and Hanging Balloons at your disposal can help you have more productive mediations.

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.