Vivien B. Williamson, Mediating with Empathy

edwards mediation vivien williamson

Attorney Vivien Williamson has been a mediator since 1987. She has helped resolve thousands of disputes, from employment to civil rights; earth movement to personal injury. In her employment law practice, she has mediated hundreds of claims of sexual harassment; disability, gender and age discrimination, among others. Vivien is known for her ability to take on and mediate highly emotional cases.

Vivien is also a teacher and mentor. She has taught mediation and negotiation at Hastings College of the Law, as well as other law schools and universities. She has made numerous presentations on ADR to bar associations, law firms, professional societies and other organizations across the country. She is often retained by organizations to consult on the design and implementation of conflict management systems.

What I most admire about Vivien is her intuitive, empathic approach to mediation. Even as a young child, she always knew that she wanted to be a mediator. She is one of the few attorneys I know who went to law school expressly to study mediation. Vivien is one of our Edwards Mediation Academy expert instructors.

Following are some of Vivien’s nuggets of mediation wisdom:

On emotion in mediation

The mediator needs to focus on the participants’ emotions throughout the mediation. Vivien can recall situations, for example, where a lawyer doesn’t think emotion is quite appropriate in the process, while she sees that the party is suppressing his or her emotions.
Whenever that happens, Vivien finds a way to make it safe for the party to come to a place where they can talk about what they are feeling. For the party to feel safe, sometimes Vivian has directed a lawyer to leave the room in a non-confrontational way. At other times, she has used humor to allow the party to open up in front of their counsel. Vivien instinctively understands different peoples’ bandwidth for dealing with emotion.

On providing a safe environment

Because Vivien is so comfortable with emotion, she provides an atmosphere where others (both parties and counsel) feel at ease. She once had a lawyer (after a particularly difficult mediation) tell her, “You remind me of my Aunt Susan… you’re kind of a frumpy dresser…I just feel really safe around you.”

On paying attention to non-verbal communication

Vivien notes that lawyers are wordsmiths, and most have huge vocabularies. Over the years, she has started paying attention to what she is hearing behind the words by watching peoples’ body language very carefully. She especially notices clinched jaws and lack of eye contact. The biggest mistakes she has made, however, were presuming that she knew what that nonverbal communication meant.

She used to see someone rolling their eyes, for example, and assume that they were lying, when instead they might be thinking that someone else in the room was being an idiot. Now, rather than assuming what is behind the nonverbal cues, she bluntly asks for clarification in a non-threatening, often humorous way.

To me, these nuggets of mediation wisdom will be Vivien’s legacy.

Susan Franson Edwards is responsible for the day-to-day operations of Edwards Mediation Academy, including the production of online mediation education and training courses, product marketing and customer relations. She co-founded Edwards Mediation Academy with Bruce Edwards in 2014 in an effort to deliver the highest quality mediation training to a worldwide audience.