Negotiating In “Blind” Faith

This article was originally submitted to Kluwer Mediation Blog, and may be viewed here. It has been reproduced with permission.

I was recently witness to a mediation session during which two seasoned negotiators behaved disappointingly. Why? On the other side was a negotiator, who walked in with a cane, accompanied by her lawyer. From the outset, these two experienced negotiators behaved very awkwardly at the table, with one of them even waving at the visually-impaired individual, attempting to gather her attention while greeting her. Without meaning anything of what they said or did, their behaviour was rude and insensitive.

Many strange and embarrassing things happened at the table that day that motivated me to call up a lawyer friend based in Goa, Karleen De Mello. Blinded at birth, Karleen never took to life as a victim or survivor; her approach has always been positive and competitive. Having participated in a few mediation scenarios, Karleen has been kind to share some insights on how to avoid the type of awkward behaviour I recently witnessed at a mediation table with a blind party.

“You speak about trusting the person sitting opposite you? What about the person sitting besides you? I had a situation where the mediator called for a caucus with the opposing party and my lawyer walked out of the room without me. Deeply embarrassed, he then returned to fetch me. I didn’t know whether to curse him for his insensitivity or burst out laughing at the chaos we must have created in the room,” recalls Karleen.

Karleen and I suggest the following guidance for mediation situations where one person at the table is blind.

Familiarise Yourself With Names: this is effective as it gives the conversation direction and a personal touch. Karleen says, “For those of us with limitations, we can’t look the others in the eye; therefore, addressing them by their name makes an effective human connection. It helps draw their attention and ensures they are listening to you at all times. Taking time to learn names and to pronounce them right will make the others believe that you mean everything you say from then on. For everyone else, saying our name out loud and regularly while conversing similarly builds rapport with us and helps to make us feel involved and engaged.”

Handshakes: greetings can be chaotic and awkward if not done well. Setting the right tone is essential to a mediation and therefore these preliminary gestures must be well thought out. Karleen says, “The person escorting the blind party will usually direct the hand of the person who is visually impaired across the table. If we choose to shake, we must make sure it’s a confident one. So much can be deduced from our sense of touch. Having said that, for everyone else, please don’t consider it rude if we forget to shake and keep you hanging. The best option is, with us, you go second. Reach out only if we do first so as to avoid any awkwardness”.

Break the Ice: the first few moments are crucial to creating an amicable atmosphere. Addressing the disability early will allow the process of trust-building to begin. Karleen says, “This is important as not all of us may be holding a cane, wearing tinted glasses or carrying a ‘Brailler’ and therefore our disability may not be apparent to others”. This could work – “It’s great to have finally come to the table to dialogue. I am here with you a 100% despite my visual limitations. Yes, I am legally blind, but what I can’t see, I assure to make up with my listening ears. On a lighter note, my lawyer says you look like fine people, so I hope you don’t go against my counsel’s best judgment.”

Connect via Empathy: eye-contact is key for effective communication. For a situation where one person cannot see, we must look towards another powerful tool – the sense of listening attentively – in order to connect empathically. Karleen says, “For us who rely a lot on our ears, we must try nodding, some mini-acknowledgements (“oh”, “ok”, “yes”, “right”, etc.). Don’t be afraid to smile. Body language is our biggest tool to connect with the other person. I try and not cross my arms at the table and rather place them confidently in front of me. I p