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The most important point:
  Remember that people who have trouble understanding or speaking are more capable and mature than they appear to be.

When you're facilitating:
Handling language or hearing difficulties

Excerpt from The Mediator's Handbook
by Jennifer Beer with Eileen Stief,
© 1997 Friends Conflict Resolution Programs

Here are some ways to include people who, because of language or hearing, have trouble understanding or expressing themselves in a mediation. These tips are also useful for trainings, meetings, and discussions.

Facilitating the session:

  • Allow extra time for each phase of the mediation.
  • This includes the preparation upfront--make sure they understand what will happen at the table, and that everyone has written materials well ahead of time.
  • Take more breaks than usual, because it is hard to concentrate for long periods. Use this time to check in, to let the parties confer in their own language.
  • Try to be aware of how much the person is following the discussion.
  • Give the person a longer time to compose a response, even if others are uncomfortable with longer silences.
  • Be vigilant about asking people to speak clearly and about keeping the pace from running away. This is easy to forget when discussion heats up or people are full of ideas.

Keep your own language simple:

  • Pause every sentence or two. (Very helpful but surprisingly hard to remember to do.)
  • Use short sentences, no idioms. Stress and repeat key words.
  • Face the person when you speak but don't exaggerate your pronunciation. Gesture with your hands, use facial expressions.
  • Use drawings, diagrams, write key words where all can see them.
  • Give the person a draft copy as you read the agreement aloud.


  • If a mediator is bilingual, try to use both languages at the table. It may also be useful to write the agreement in both languages.
  • Try to have associates or family members come to support the person, and select an uninvolved party to officially translate.
  • Have a private conversation with the translator beforehand about roles and how you will work together.
  • Translators often become advisors and even de facto decision-makers. Try to communicate with the parties as directly as you can.

Difficulty reading:

Some people do not read or write well, especially in a foreign language, and may be reluctant to admit this. (Or they may have forgotten their glasses!) Whenever you mediate, remember to routinely summarize aloud the content of any written materials and to read aloud the final agreement before asking people to sign.

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© 1997-2003 Jennifer E. Beer Fair use policy

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