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Mediation Perspectives: Empathy versus Realpolitik?

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Mediation Perspectives is a periodic blog entry that’s provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts. To keep up to date with the Mediation Support Team, you can sign up to their newsletter here.

Personal qualities and “micro skills” in peace mediation[1]

“So many people want to join mediation teams without having worked on the micro-techniques of mediation. These may seem far removed from bringing warring factions together. It relates more to the normal management of human interaction in conflict. These techniques have to do with the way you hold yourself; the way you listen; and the way you recognize where people have a common interest (…)” Nicolas ‘Fink’ Haysom,[2] South African mediator in Burundi and Sudan and former UN Special Representative for Afghanistan.

“The real point is that in mediation temperament trumps technique. (…) The right temperament is manifested primarily in the innate ability to listen to negotiators, to understand, absorb and even feel what they say about themselves and what they want. Let us call these the empathetic skills.” Álvaro de Soto, Peruvian diplomat and former UN Under-Secretary-General, who was a mediator in numerous peace processes.[3]

Mediation within peace processes is increasingly based on professional standards, and yet the personal attributes referred to in the quotes above are still not integral to political actors’ understanding of mediation. In organizational and family mediation, the mediator’s style is generally seen as very important. Given the constraints of realpolitik, however, it is hard to imagine that attitude and communication behaviour might have an important bearing on mediation processes in the political arena. Nevertheless, a number of factors suggest that this is the case.

Observing the specialist discourse about current political mediation processes, it is noticeable that generally, there is a lot of talk about the political context (composition, interests, power structures and the parties’ strategic calculations). A welcome development is the increasing – and increasingly professional – discussion about process design. A topic which is not often discussed, however, is the direct communication behaviour of the mediators themselves: the way in which they build rapport and use active listening, questioning techniques, non-verbal communication and empathy. These are all topics which are the focus of professional discourse and training in other areas of mediation and which make the mediative attitude visible. Obviously, for reasons of confidentiality, these are not matters which can be discussed in detail in relation to specific negotiations. However, it is completely wrong, as a consequence, to underestimate the significance of the mediative attitude and communication behaviour or assume that these are things that experienced intermediaries are inherently able to do effectively without the need for perpetual critical self-reflection. Thinking like this fits together with the view espoused by people who say ‘mediation’, but mean ‘classic diplomacy with intensive use of political pressure’, and for whom thinking about omnipartiality and openness to results is unrealistic and naive. Accordingly, Kirchoff, Kraus and von Dobeneck claim:

“When it really matters, international mediation processes still put more trust in political experience than in mediation skills and methods.”[4]

Of course, it is well-nigh impossible to leave “realpolitik” aside when talking about mediation in the political arena. Realpolitik inhibits entirely facilitative, non-directive, pressure-free and voluntary mediation. The considerations and constraints subsumed within the term “realpolitik” play a key role. And yet when reading the memoirs of many illustrious figures who have mediated at track 1 level, the extent to which they focus on interpersonal contact and how they shaped it is striking. A telling example is Jimmy Carter’s photograph story:

“I handed him the photographs. He took them and thanked me. Then he happened to look down and saw that his granddaughter’s name was written on top of it. He spoke it aloud, and then looked at each photograph individually, repeating the name of the grandchild I had written on it. His lips trembled, and tears welled up in his eyes. (…) We were both emotional as we talked quietly for a few minutes about grandchildren and about war”. [5] Jimmy Carter, former US President, describes a moment when peace negotiations between Israel and Egypt at Camp David appeared to have broken down after the Israeli President Begin announced his departure. Previously, Begin had asked Carter to sign photographs for his grandchildren. Carter researched the names of the grandchildren to make the dedications more personal. On seeing the signed photos, Begin decided to stay. The negotiations were concluded successfully.

Another telling example on the use of empathy stems from informal track 1.5 talks related to the Georgia-Abkhaz conflict in the 2000s:

“On one occasion to help reframe the talks, facilitators invited the parties to conduct a role-play. Observed by the Abkhaz, Georgians role-played the Abkhaz discussing what would be acceptable to them in order to facilitate progress and what factors obstructed progress. Participants on both sides were stunned by how well the Georgians played the Abkhaz, creating a powerful resonance for those involved. Both sides’ eyes were opened to factors that explained the other’s behaviour. The insights derived from these discussions led to senior Georgian officials drafting a series of options for moving forward that were presented to the new Georgian President in 2004 and which informed negotiations under the auspices of the UN for the next two years.” (Matt Waldman: The Software of Geopolitics)

Unfortunately, this linking knowledge is always anecdotal and, for reasons of confidentiality, there are no systematic studies available. This means that we have a problem in presenting our case convincingly. The relevant knowledge is difficult to reach but is essential to create trust in the method of mediation. Kirchhoff et al. see “the lack of political intermediaries’ own experience with effective mediation” as a reason for the absence of trust in the procedure/method of mediation. To build trust, the authors argue, it is crucial to “experience defining moments generated by good methods in real-world processes”. [6]

Social constructivist approaches to political science provide further references to support the relevance of empathetic skills. For instance, Wong [7] points out that in diplomats’ face-to-face interaction it is crucial to decode emotions in order to be able to gauge the other side’s intentions and priorities. He gives an example by mentioning the ‘back channel’ between Robert Kennedy and the former Soviet ambassador Dobrynin during the Cuban missile crisis in 1961. The correspondence between Dobrynin and Khrushchev suggests that Kennedy’s expression of emotion at the confidential conversations greatly influenced the Soviet assumption that they could trust the US proposals on the unofficial linking of the Soviet removal of missiles from Cuba with the United States’ subsequent removal of its missiles from Turkey. If this holds good for bilateral discussions, it must surely apply to mediation as well.

Consequently, there are many paths towards an approximation of political de facto mediation and principle-led mediation. Steps in this direction are needed from both sides.

[1] This Blog post is a condensed and translated version of an article published by the author in the German Mediation journal Spektrum der Mediation. The original can be found here.

[2] Letters to a Young Mediator. A collection of 10 letters from some of the great mediators of our time. Swisspeace and Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Bern 2015.

[3] ibid.

[4] Lars Kirchoff, Anne Isabel Kraus, Julia von Dobeneck: Von Elephaten und Papiertigern in der Friedensmediation.

[5] Jimmy Carter: Keeping Faith. Memoirs of a President, London 1982

[6] ibid

[7] Seanon S. Wong: Emotions and the communication of intentions in face-to-face diplomacy. European Journal of International Relations, 1/2016

About the Author

Dirk Splinter co-directs inmedio – institute for mediation. development. consultuing ( He is a mediation trainer since over 15 years and conducts mediation processes not only in peacebuilding and development contexts but also in business and organisational conflicts. Dirk has been involved in mediation and dialogue projects in several post-war or transition countries like Egypt, Nepal, Ethiopia, Ukraine. He represents inmedio in the Initiative Mediation Support Germany (, an informal network which supports the German Foreign Office in its efforts to promote peace mediation.

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