Having mediated divorce cases my entire career, I have learned that the space in which the negotiations take place can have a huge impact on whether we can get to “yes.” If the room does not promote settlement, it can actually have a negative impact on outcomes.
I first started to notice this phenomenon when volunteering as a Settlement Conference Judge at the Family Court in San Diego. The environment at the San Diego Family Court (before it moved to the new and beautiful courthouse in San Diego) was really bad. I was forced to sit with the parties and try to get them to reach a settlement in the lobby of the courthouse at non-private tables just outside the courtroom. The environment was stressful anyway because it was the same location where litigation happened. Furthermore, because the tables were in the lobby and not private, it was hard for parties to focus on their cases. Sometimes other attorneys would interrupt to say “hello”. Furthermore, the sheriff with his side arm was ever present. Other people who were there for their own cases were present in the room. Let’s just say that the environment was very stressful. As a result, parties did not feel safe. It was hard to settle in spite of my mediation skills.
In contrast, sometimes counsel would hire me to mediate the same case after the mandatory settlement conference with great success at my office, where I control the atmosphere in ways to encourage settlement. In fact, I have learned that certain conditions must exist before a case will settle:
- The space must lack distraction.
- The parties must feel safe.
- The parties must be able to be calm and relaxed.
Here’s what I do to encourage those conditions.
A mediator’s office should look less like a law office and more like a home.
Once, I had an argument with my interior designer about a piece of furniture I had selected for my small conference room, where I do most of my divorce mediation. She complained that it didn’t look like a piece that would be in a professional law office. It was more appropriate in someone’s dining or living room. It was at that moment that I knew I had made the right choice. When I explained to my designer that I liked the piece precisely because looked like it belonged in a home instead of a law office, I saw the light go on. She got it. We then made the conference room look comfortable and homey. From then on, my requirement for any new furniture was that it could not look like it belonged in a lawyer’s office.
People do not feel as safe in a lawyer’s office as they do in a home. I make a point of moving as far away from “traditional legal” design as I can get. No large oak bookcases filled with law books. No “goddess of justice” with her blindfold and scales. And never- under any circumstances- will there be a gavel. (I received a reward one time with a plaque that featured a gavel. I keep it hidden away from the client’s view in my working office.)
Colors should be relaxing and calming.
Colors can do so much to set the mood of a space. The effect of color on one’s mood can be so powerful that there is an entire field of “color psychology”. Leslie Harrington, a color consultant in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, was quoted that, “Color is a universal, nonverbal language, and we all intuitively know how to speak it…. What color you paint your walls isn’t just a matter of aesthetics. It’s a tool for your mediation skills that can be leveraged to affect emotions and behavior.”
As a secondary color, we went with a light brown, which conjures a feeling of strength and reliability. Viewed as solid, natural and down-to-earth, brown is often linked to resilience, dependability, security, and safety. One commenter wrote, “Brown is a color that oozes security. It symbolizes HOME, contentment and peace and quietness. The browns are colors of good furniture and favorable smells thus imparting happiness.”
Consider essential oils.
Massage therapists and spas have long known the benefits of aroma therapy for relaxation. To spread a relaxing scent throughout our office, we use the Dewdrop Design Home Diffuser from Young Living Essential Oils. It cost us around $89 and came with an essential oil starter kit. For relaxation and stress relief, our favorite oil cocktail is lavender mixed with citrus. We also like the Young Living blend called Stress Away, which is a pleasant blend of Copaiba, Lime, Cedarwood, Vanilla, Ocotea, and Lavender.
There are many essential oil options on the market as well as many studies about the effectiveness of aroma therapy. One study showed that “aromatherapy reduced anxiety, increased sleep, and stabilized the [blood pressure] of patients undergoing cardiac stent insertion.” Another study showed that aroma therapy significantly reduced stress responses in high school adolescents. Yet another study at the University of Montana showed that a treatment group who inhaled essential oils consisting of clary sage, chamomile and lavender “reported lower levels of anxiety and stress, and increased levels of sleep quality and energy. The control group, in contrast, reported higher levels of anxiety and stress, and decreased levels of sleep quality and energy. The results suggest aroma inhalation may reduce stress among college students.”
No matter where the science falls for us, the oils simply help create a low stress environment, which does a lot to pull people out of fight or flight so that they can make rational decisions. It simply enhances your mediation skills by encouraging settlement.
However, I have also learned to be careful. The scent should be subtle. Making the smells overpoweringly strong is distracting. So, have fun with it and use the oils to help make your mediation environment relaxing and calm, but don’t overdo it.
When I was a child, visiting my grandparents was a special treat. They lived two hours away by car. The routine was always the same. We’d arrive in the driveway and they would greet us with open arms and love. Then they would prepare a wonderful lunch. We’d gather around the table and eat together. The food, though never fancy, was comforting. It was a ritual that brought us closer and encouraged conversation. Today, my wife and I try to have regular family meals. There is just something about eating together.
I’ve learned to apply the power of food in my mediations. We don’t overdo it, but an element of comforting food at the center of the table can go a long way. Experience shows that chocolate can be the great elixir of settlement. Having muffins and coffee can be very nice and add to a “homey” atmosphere. A little bit of candy is a nice touch. Also, health snacks like trail mix, nuts or fruit can help folks replenish a little bit. Bananas with their high dosage of potassium can help with fatigue.
Not only adding to a relaxed, homey atmosphere, the food gives the mediator some information too. If you have ever watched a cat approach food, you will notice that the cat will look over its shoulder and approach the food very carefully. It’s not just because the cat is a nervous wreck. It’s watching out for predators before it will allow itself to be vulnerable and eat. If you watch animals in the wild eat, you may notice the same thing.
People aren’t much different. I have learned that a party in a mediation won’t eat unless he or she feels safe. If the stress is high, the snacks often remain untouched. I might model behavior and start eating myself- showing that the environment is safe. I observe who eats and who doesn’t eat. If a party refuses to partake of anything, I get one set of data. Conversely, if a party eats all the chocolates in a bowl in ten minutes, one might think there is some stress eating going on.
Relaxing music can also go a long way to set a mood for settlement. Often my clients are agitated when they arrive. I usually just go on YouTube and find something appropriate to pipe through the speakers at my receptionist’s computer. I keep the volume down. Just enough to set the mood is fine. It can also serve as some white noise to help with masking upset voices coming from behind doors. (Additionally, I sometimes use a white noise machine in the waiting room to help with confidentiality especially when voices are raised.) Be careful of your music choice, however. Some classical music can be extremely agitating. Whatever you choose, make sure it is soothing.
A Neat, Clean Space.
When I work, I have a tendency to have files everywhere. It’s my working style—managed chaos. That may be fine for me (probably not really)—but a chaotic environment is not ok when you are trying to use your mediation skills to help people feel safe and be calm. In fact, when things are messy, it contributes to stress.
I once visited a colleague’s office for a mediation where I served as advising counsel. I knew the moment I arrived that the case would not settle. There were boxes in the hallways, post-its all over the walls and papers everywhere. I could see my client’s agitation level rise the moment he walked in the office. It was chaotic and things did not go well. According to Sherry Burton Ways, an interior designer, color therapist, and author of Feel Good Spaces: A Guide to Decorating Your Home for Body, Mind And Spirit, “Mess equals stress.”
Plants bring life to a space. According to Burton Ways, “Integrating plants in the work environment not only beautifies the environment but has been proven to reduce absenteeism, reduce stress, lower blood pressure, increase positive feelings, lower noise levels, decrease room temperature and lower humidity.” Several studies have found that benefits of potted plants in an environment include lower blood pressure, improved reaction times, increases attentiveness, improved well-being, improved perceptions of the space and lower levels of anxiety.
One study conducted in 2010 found strong evidence that office plants can reduce stress and negative mood states. Subjects who had plants placed around their offices showed reduction in stress levels and negative feelings by 30 to 60%, whereas environments without plants showed increases in stress and negativity by 20 to 40%.
A Calm Environment.
Early in my legal my career, I worked in a high-stress office. It was always a hustle and bustle. People would often yell or swear. Attorneys would yell from office to office as they hurried through their high-speed day. The informality was great for the high-paced litigation world. But I found that my mediation clients did not react well. The sheer volume and noise were distracting. Worse, the stress created by all that negative energy was contagious. I watched as my clients looking for a refuge were bombarded by chaos. It made them feel uneasy and increased their anxiety.
As a result, we now have a policy against raising our voice. Shouting from office to office is discouraged. If there is a crisis, we keep it in the back office and away from the clients.
Parties in a family law or divorce mediation come to us at a crisis in their lives. Hence, essential mediation skills include the ability to produce a feeling of sanctuary, shelter, and refuge from the storm. Your office space can either help or hinder the parties feeling safe and ready to negotiate. So, take the time to take inventory of your environment. Pay attention to the details. Set the table for settlement. Your clients will thank you.
Shawn Weber is a master mediator and co-founder of Family Resolution Institute. For more information about Shawn Weber and his unique Dolphin Lawyering approach to family law, visit www.WeberDisputeResolution.com.
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