The other day I was presiding over some senior-level policy mediation roleplays at the Foreign Office. And I saw something interesting
The roleplays featured three FCO officials. Two were playing the role of odious dishonest rival warlords scheming for advantage at a forthcoming peace conference after a ruinous civil war had wrecked their country. The third played an EU-style Ambassador who had been asked to help sort out various problems about the way the conference was being organised (nameplates, titles, who sits at the table – ostensibly trivial issues that in real life situations assume monstrous destructive prominence as they are seen as symbolising power relationships and so on).
The warlords had been briefed to be intransigent and obnoxious but then start haggling to see who could get the best deal. Both wanted the conference to succeed, but neither wanted to say so.
I watched the discussions evolve more or less as planned. Then I saw it.
The man playing warlord A would swallow hard before making any concession. His laryngeal prominence (aka Adam’s Apple) oscillated quite vigorously, perhaps from stress, as he made up his mind. Once you spotted this it was hard to notice anything else.
Neither the other warlord nor the mediator noticed this. They were too busy arguing with him and with themselves. Had they done so, it would have given each of them a big clue about the state of warlord A’s mind without warlord A realising it and, perhaps, helped them manoeuvre a way to a more favourable outcome.
A good mediator listens carefully to what the parties are saying when they are speaking.
The best mediators listen no less carefully to what they are saying when they are not speaking…