It feels natural to take notes while mediating or coaching, and coaching and mediation notes serve a purpose. While jotting down something really important is useful, taking notes throughout the session is often a mistake. Here’s how note-taking can be a bad habit and a barrier to effective mediating and coaching.
In a recent conflict coaching workshop for leaders and managers, I was preparing the group for their first coaching activity. Paired up and ready to take turns coaching each other on a real conflict in their lives, I asked the coaches to put down their pens and leave them on the tables in front of them.
“Please don’t take notes,” I requested.
This request was not met with great enthusiasm. One participant even challenged me back with, “But you took notes during the demo! Why can’t we?”
I held up my notepad for everyone to see. It contained just three words, a short list of interests I’d heard from the person I was coaching. The rest of the sheet was blank. For virtually the entire session, my pen had been capped.
While there are times when note-taking is useful and even advisable, I wanted these coaches to give their listening muscles a true workout. I wanted them to listen deeply, in ways it’s almost impossible to do with even minor multi-tasking like writing. And I wanted the person being coached to have the experience of someone’s full attention, because there’s nothing like it.
When I’m teaching mediators, I often make the same request. Pen and paper can be a crutch for new mediators, who fear they’ll forget something important. That’s understandable when they’re just starting out. But then the crutch becomes a habit. And over time, the habit becomes well formed, unquestioned, and mindlessly followed.
Why you need to write less than you think you do
You need to write less than you think for the sake of your clients or employees:
- There’s something about the mediator or manager sitting there with a notepad and pen that conveys “interview,” or “interrogation,” or “record for your HR file.” Is that really what you’re trying to achieve as the mediator or coach? Now, I do understand that for some of you reading this, there are some professional and even legal standards you’re required to meet and notes help you do that. But you’ll be hard-pressed to persuade me that you need your pen in hand all the time to capture the things you’re required to.
- The mediation or coaching room is one of the few places in people’s lives where they have a chance to be truly listened to. Giving someone your undivided attention is a rare gift (click to tweet this). I am repeatedly reminded of how rare and valuable a gift this is when a mediation or coaching client says to me, “Thank you for really listening to me. No one else has.”
- Your clients don’t know that you’re not really listening when you’re writing. They don’t know what you missed hearing. They said it and assume you heard it. Conflict is complicated enough without adding a layer of additional confusion to the mix.
And you need to write less than you think for the sake of your own effectiveness as a mediator or coach.
When you’re taking notes, you’re multi-tasking. There’s no way around that — you are trying to do at least two things at once: Write and listen. But when you’re trying to do two things at once, your brain is actually switching between each task, back and forth, back and forth. One task is getting attention and the other’s not, and then this is reversed as your attention switches back again. Psychologists have a term, “switch costs,” which refers to the costs of attention loss and the demands on willpower.
The bottom line? When you’re writing, you’re not fully listening. And that means you’re missing things.
Sometimes what you’re missing is a gem you should not have missed. That’s a high price to pay for a crutch-habit.
How much do you really need to write down?
Less than you think.
This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, but here’s what I take the time to write down. So that I don’t get overly absorbed in the writing instead of the listening, I prefer to jot phrases and words instead of entire sentences (with one exception, noted below).
- Interests — The most important underlying needs a client identifies. I don’t write these down at all unless the list starts getting long.
- Something important I want to return to — It may be something I heard in passing that I think merits a revisit when the timing is right. In an entire mediation session, I will often have only 2-3 of these; the rest don’t need writing down because I can attend to them right away or they’re so powerful I will not lose track of them.
- The list of problems and issues I understand they want to resolve together. This list often re-shapes itself and the items in it reframed as the session unfolds.
- Tentative proposals and agreements — These I write out in full with their help, to make sure I’ve got the details right as we go along. I make sure to say out loud that I’m jotting down a tentative list and that nothing is final until everyone agrees it is. Since they’re working with me on this, I’m not missing conversation.
But how do you prepare summary notes, then?
It’s not hard.
Mediators often send summary notes to clients after a session, and managers and HR professionals also have good reason to keep a record of what transpired in the kind of informal mediations they do daily. These are good and useful practices and I use them, too.
Immediately following a session, I take 5-10 minutes to outline the summary notes while the session is still fresh in my mind. The few things I jotted down as mediation notes guide my drafting and the rest is readily present in my memory — because I paid attention.
Challenge yourself to get out of the crutch-habit
If you’re used to sitting in the mediator’s or coach’s chair with pen in hand, it’ll feel downright unnatural to have an empty hand. You may not even notice your hand reaching for the crutch-pen and scribbling away.
Feeling unnatural for a little while as you change a habit is a small price to pay for being a better mediator or coach. Put down and cap your pen. Close the laptop lid. Hold a cup of coffee in that empty writing hand if you must. Push yourself to use your mediation notes only for their best purpose — to track what must not be lost.
For everything else, practice being fully present with your clients or employees. They’ll love you for it and you’ll hear the gems you’ve been missing.
After publication, a reader sent me this additional reason to be cautious about copious note-taking. Here’s mediator, facilitator, and mediation trainer Cathie Kuhl’s helpful story, reprinted here with her permission.
I provide mediation training for professionals, law students, etc., and I routinely caution them about note-taking. Here is what I tell them:
I supervised professional mediators for several decades in a court-based mediation program. Occasionally (thank heavens), I would get a call from a mediation party who had a complaint that the mediator was not neutral. I always asked the caller to describe what the mediator did or said that led to that conclusion. More often than not, the caller replied that when the other party was talking, the mediator was taking copious notes; however when the caller was talking, the mediator took very few, if any, notes. Seems that the mediator was creating an impression of bias by taking more notes when one party was speaking; i.e., what that party had to say was more “noteworthy.”
The solution, I advised, was not to take “equal” notes; that is often not possible as one party may be more voluble, or present a more organized or fact-laden story. I suggested, as you do, to jot down just a few items (interests, key words, sometimes a graphic) and preferably use a flip chart, so both can see what you are noting.