During the recent Annual Northwest Dispute Resolution Conference, I started talking to colleagues about what appears to be a dichotomy in our field: To a litigator, a joint-session approach is anathema, while to a community mediator, shuttle diplomacy is virtually unthinkable. But all trained mediators use much the same toolbox to allow them to facilitate a conversation between the parties. Why, then, is there not more of a continuum between the two approaches? Why can we not combine them to craft a mediation session that is tailored to the needs of the parties?
Today, I attended the Seattle Federal Executive Board's 13th Annual Training Day, during which Ann McBroom, Director of the King County Inter-Local Conflict Resolution Group (ILCRG) addressed this very issue from a slightly different perspective. The ICLRG has begun to identify cases that may benefit from "pre-mediation caucus", i.e., separate in-person meetings with each party. In those meetings, the mediator allows each party to express their narrative, then works with that narrative to name the issues, focus the party's goals for mediation, and provide coaching on how to articulate questions and statements to the other party that will allow them to achieve those goals. Based on the pre-mediation caucus, the mediator makes a decision as to whether to bring the parties together in a joint session or conduct a shuttle mediation.
This approach requires what may appear at first glance to be a greater investment of time by the mediator. However, anecdotal evidence to date indicates that it may actually cut down on the time the parties require to resolve their conflict once the pre-mediation caucus has been completed.
While it may not be useful in all types of cases, I believe that this approach has enormous potential to bridge the gap and/or eliminate the dichotomy I mentioned above. More importantly, it creates a framework within which to structure a mediation so that it gives clients the best possible opportunity to resolve their disputes.