Problem-Solving Success Is in Easy Reach for All of Us

What we learn from effective mediators can make a big difference for business and personal challenges

When it comes down to it, isn’t most advice simple if not always obvious? Or obvious with unexpected nuances?

Doesn’t it often boil down to solid information that can be flexibly applied?

For example: Our bodies work best and stay healthiest with activity, but there’s a mix-and-match smorgasbord of exercise options, intensities, and durations to choose from. Human bodies do best with healthy foods, but same thing, we have great flexibility around which healthy foods and in which combinations we consume them to meet the goal of healthy eating.

Study of Mediators

A trio of interconnected studies by Stephen B. Goldberg and Margaret L. Shaw of what makes mediators successful reveals something similar for those of us engaged in facilitating problem-solving either personally or professionally. It’s eye-opening advice that can serve as your own effective template and it’s flexible enough so that we all don’t have to do it the same way. We can be ourselves and make it our own.

Mediators are impartial, neutral third-party who facilitate mediations — structured (and flexible!) conversations between two parties in conflict. A commitment to individuals’ self-determination, dignity, and creativity underlies mediation. The process involves storytelling by each side, discovery of issues and interests, and generating and negotiating solutions that address as many of those issues and interests as possible, optimizing the chance that both walk away satisfied.

Confidence and Trust

So what did Goldberg and Shaw find to be the number one characteristic of these impartial problem-solving facilitators?

The ability to gain the confidence of the parties.

Yes — trust and belief that the person helping was up to the task.

And what were the top things that made gaining confidence of the parties possible? In order of importance:

  • friendliness, empathy, rapport building, likeability, sincerity;

  • honesty and integrity; and

  • being well-prepared and smart, coming across as knowledgeable and informed as relevant for the job.

Process Skills

The next most important thing to mediators’ problem-solving success was being able to take advantage of the parties’ trust and confidence by displaying good process skills. In order of importance, these are:

  • patience and persistence;

  • useful evaluations and reality checks; and

  • asking good questions and listening carefully.

Have you noticed how all of these things are simple, but not necessarily obvious? Have you also noticed that these are everyday behaviors and traits well within all of our reach? Be friendly, exhibit empathy, be honest, come prepared, know what you’re talking about, be patient, hang in there, conduct reality checks, be curious, pay close attention.

The Unsuccessful Path

The data on what makes mediators unsuccessful is just as interesting. The first set of observations are basically opposites of some of the top things that make these facilitators successful:

  • being self-absorbed, non-empathic, not interested, not respectful;

  • unethical and dishonest behavior, betraying confidences; and

  • lacking patience and persistence, quitting too easily.

But the biggest place mediators could fall short was this: The perception that they were doing nothing but going through the motions, that they weren’t directing or managing the process, that they didn’t care and were too passive and “neutral.”

None of the things that made mediators unsuccessful had anything to do with lacking polish of a particular skill.


The scholars’ primary conclusions after analyzing all the data from these three studies:

  1. Keeping in mind the high value of gaining the parties’ confidence and trust in order to manage the process well, there was still no single model for success. A mix of different skills at different strengths made the mediators successful. And, put another way:

  2. While lack of success could be traced to a few fundamental shortcomings, a range of positive attributes and their unique combinations led to success.

This stuff is so simple it is tempting to think, we needed research to tell us this? Well, I did, and I’ve been studying mediation and conflict resolution off and on since the late 1980s. Social science research like this can direct our own behavior, refine our understandings of everyday things, and bring us back to our own humanity with these gentle reveals.

It matters and it’s interesting that gaining others’ trust is of top importance and we do that through our own combination of being friendly, attentive, and understanding; of exhibiting honesty and integrity; and in showing up prepared and knowledgeable on the matter at hand. Once we have that trust, it’s also good to know that for problem solving the things that work best are within reach of all of us: be patient and don’t give up too soon, provide useful evaluations and conduct reality checks, ask good questions, and listen carefully.

Finally, can’t we all benefit from knowing that there is no single model for success and that for each of us our own mix of skills is enough to work? That there are a few core ways to fail but many ways to succeed? That lacking polish in skills may not be as detrimental to success as we think? That the worst thing we can do is “nothing,” going through the motions and not caring?