As a mediator, you constantly observe how people communicate, express their ideas and needs, and how and when communication does not work. I would like to share one of my recent observations:

The system of human language is far from perfect. When communicating (either by using words or gestures), we very simply express a series of neural connections through articulate sound and movement. Each articulate sound represents a “thing”, a name, a noun, a verb, an adjective, etc. The neural connections we seek to express happen in our brain on a silent level and by experience, repetition and education, we learn to vocalise the word representing it. But, if it were only so, we would have a new word for every new thing. In order to go quickly, facilitate our understanding of the world, from a very young age we abstract a series of characteristics of the things, characteristics which we allocate to a specific word. Therefore, a bulldog, a corgi and a greyhound are all “dogs” because, despite their differences, they share similar characteristics.

This is where language biases mutual understanding and communication. Too often we take the shortcut of considering that the thing we speak of and the word we use to represent it are the same thing. We consider language as a “common entity”, shared and understood identically by all who use the one we do. In theory, yes: a dog is an animal with certain characteristics that we commonly agree. In practice, it’s not so simple for the reason that words do not carry simple “characteristics” of a named thing, but really abstractions made by an individual, based on his experience, history, culture, etc. of the thing that has these characteristics.

As Tolkien wrote in On Fairy-Stories: ‘If a story says “he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below”, . . . every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but especially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word.’

If you are talking about dogs, the risk for misunderstanding and the consequences of it are minimal. But, when you talk about more personal and subjective topics like “trust”, “respect” or “right & wrong”, the consequences can be much more destructive.

This is where the mediator must be able to navigate language in all its aspects, shapes and routes. Accepting the words of the other as the representation of their own map of the reality places the mediator in a position where they are truly capable of welcoming and hearing the other person, and journeying with them towards a better understanding of what they are attempting to express. Maybe this is where the secret to empathy lies: accepting the other as a great unknown, and being open to receiving them as they are, not as I think of wish they are.

Joachim Muller is the Business Development and Project Coordinator in the Skills & Training team at CEDR. Contact the Skills team on 020 7536 6070 to learn how we can help your organisation.