The Power of Acknowledgement

Last month, I explored whether both parties can feel success in mediation and that by challenging our usual processes and gaining a deeper understanding of our clients’ motivations, that we’d get to the root cause of the issue and come up with a creative outcome where both parties to a mediation feel more like they’re successful and less like they’ve ‘settled’.

Recently, I have experienced another chapter to the feeling of success.

Expert and esteemed author, Judith W. Umlas advises there are 7 Principles of Acknowledgement. You can read the excerpt of the 7 principles here, however, relevantly to my experience:

  • Acknowledgement neutralises, deactivates and reduces emotions
  • Acknowledgement builds and creates powerful interactions
  • Truthful and deserved acknowledgement always makes a difference
  • Acknowledgement can improve the experience of both the giver and the receiver

Whilst in our everyday lives, this seems like common sense, when faced with heated opposing parties, all trace of humanity and decency can be lost to blame and suffering.

… can the feeling of success be achieved through the ‘power of acknowledgement’?

There are always two sides

In a mediation I conducted recently, a bank was threatening to foreclose on a fifth generation farm. Emotions were running high from the start. The landowners had experienced life-threatening illnesses in the past 18 months and had dependent children and elderly parents, all relying on the farm as their home and source of income – then they were hit by the milk price crisis. 

Things were looking grim for a civil conversation, let alone a resolution at mediation. 

However, things took a dramatic turn following the experienced banker’s opening statement. Despite the tough news that a sale was imminent, the banker followed with a heartfelt acknowledgement of the difficulty the family had been recently experiencing, and appreciated that those circumstances, combined with a number of changes to bank personnel, had led to a significant communication breakdown which had exacerbated the problem.

Remarkably, you could visibly see the anger subside – the fight had been removed and humanity had been brought into the room – which then gave way to constructive negotiations of how things would play out moving forward.

Don’t shy away from the difficult conversations

The previous experience was not a ‘one off’; a similar approach was equally as constructive in a complex multi-party commercial mediation.

The legal representative for the key Defendant arrived at mediation stating that, “his client would not be participating in any joint session, that it would be a waste of time, and let’s just get down to the negotiations.” 

This was not going to fare well. The Plaintiffs were irate and rearing for a fight, each with numerous Counsel and instructing solicitors in tow. 

Respectfully resisting the direction of Defence Counsel, I spoke with Counsel and the Defendant to find out more.

It became clear that the Defendant was extremely remorseful for how things had morphed into heated litigation, that previously there had been a great longstanding commercial relationship between all parties. The parties had not spoken in person for over 12 months and a stalemate had unfortunately resulted which had propelled the litigation. I encouraged a joint session, sharing with the Defendant my experience of the ‘power of acknowledgement’ and how, based on my independent understanding of the dispute, this could help to break down the stalemate.

During a brief joint session, after hearing the concerns and issues raised by the Plaintiffs, I encouraged the Defendant to personally have a voice. Within moments of hearing from the Defendant, the Plaintiffs became pliant and ready and willing to negotiate.

Acknowledgement is power

Acknowledgement need not always take the form of words, but can present in body language and active listening (something which I will explore in a future post).

By getting to the heart of what drives our clients, we can pave a way for greater and more amicable resolutions.

I firmly believe that neither the banker, nor the Defendant felt owning up to their part in the breakdown was a sign of weakness – if anything, it was an empowering stance. And who knows, maybe in time, respect will be regained between the opposing parties.


Anna McRae-Anderson

Anna has a knack for helping parties find creative commercial solutions. With over 20 years commercial dispute resolution experience as both mediator and ex-litigator, her vast understanding of the law is harmonized with her practical intellect and compassion for those in dispute.

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