The mediator faces a tough challenge — she represents the final stage before court, the last chance to settle things before the parties head into litigation. She must instill confidence and trust in her parties upfront and display the idea of possessing nearly endless abilities to settle any dispute peacefully and gracefully — after all she is the last chance to avoid the worst and she gets one opportunity to make a flawless first impression. While litigators have minions of paralegals supporting them, the mediator works alone. It is all on her, no matter how complicated the case.
All parties will look to her as their last option to avoid a fight in court and if they do not instantly sense that she can handle it successfully, they will likely shut down earlier than later. In a way, super human qualities are expected from a mediator. She is the magician that fixes the situation gone awry. Since she is dealing with human beings who have most likely reached the pinnacle of emotional frustration, she needs to be perfect from the get-go as there is not much room for error.
The good news is that by making a solid first impression, she can lower the barrier to success dramatically (i.e., resistance from her parties). But how? What really is a first impression? It is a combination of appearance, speech and demeanor. The complete picture paints the story for the observer and since the observer is in a heightened state of mind, a bad first impression is not easily forgiven. Her job becomes much harder if she has to “convince” the parties that she is truly capable rather than owning that assumption upfront. If she exudes confidence which is directly proportional to her appearance, speech and demeanor she will likely conquer the situation and find a mutually beneficial solution for all.
Besides her brilliance, appearance is enourmously important for a mediator and it must not be underestimated. If her suit is too big, or her hair too frizzy, or her shoes too dirty, or her speech too unpolished, or her demeanor too shaky, the parties will assume that she cannot save the situation. A female mediator’s appearance influences her parties enormously as they will immediately draw an initial conclusion upon meeting her (like, “this one looks smart” or “this one looks like she does not have it all together” or “she seems distracted” or “I don’t like her flashy outfit” or “she is just a pretty face”). Human judgement is so fast and so prejudicial and so devastating to her endeavor that it can ruin her goals from the get-go.
Men impress by default (he is a guy he MUST be competent) but women do not have that advantage in business situations. Women are assumed to be gracious, beautiful, weak, nice, sweet, dumb, pretty, conciliatory, shrill, difficult….. but not “competent” by default. But a mediator needs to appear competent upon “Hello”. She needs to look sharp, smart, well groomed, in control, like a gentle powerhouse. If she does not wear a well fitting suit she does not even stand a chance to convey that upfront. Mediation is not the place to show of a nice fuzzy sweater, granny’s garden pants, or an overly flashy dress — it will drain all her power right out.
What are you talking about, you say? You know amazing women mediators who are known in the field and impress by stature alone; they require no fancy suit or shoe to impress anyone. Your opposition is respectfully noted. Of course, there are always legends who are beyond all of us mortals. Once established as a genius mediator, the world lies at her feet. But for those women who start out in this field, appearance will matter just as much as it matters in court. The mediator must present herself to near perfection because that is what people will judge her by before she ever even gets a chance to prove that she’s got it.