Much of the success of any mediation session, not necessarily defined by whether a resolution is achieved , depends on the effectiveness of the mediator and the motivation of the parties. However, preparation before the session begins is often less emphasized in mediation training and practice. Some of the activities that precede the parties’ arrival at the table/telephone/computer are handled by case managers and other administrators for those mediators fortunate enough to be supported by staff. Even for mediators that do utilize staff, there are many situations where interventions performed by the mediator her/himself before the parties arrive may smooth the process and avoid difficulties at the table.
At the risk of stating the obvious to experienced mediators who already practice serious and even extensive preparation for their sessions, I will be specific about a number of pre-mediation steps. As indicated in examples, some kinds of preparation are more critical in large groups; however, I will not cover here some of the special preparation, such as preparing agendas and arranging activities, that are often used by facilitators as contrasted with mediators. There is not always a bright line dividing large mediations from group facilitations; however in general, mediations deal with conflicts between the parties while facilitation often is aimed at clarifying common goals mostly for work groups, and attempting to find and build consensus. For more on this and the special skills required for facilitation click here or check “core competencies” for facilitators on the site of the International Association of Facilitators.
Many articles and videos on “how to prepare” are aimed at parties who are considering or have already scheduled mediation, however my focus here is on the mediator, who in addition to preparing her/himself, can also help to prepare the parties. For example, Stacy Roberts’ excellent video “5 Tips to Prepare for Mediation” instructs parties to get ready for sessions by listing their issues and goals, gathering relevant information, seeking professional and friendly advice, scheduling adequate session time and even getting enough sleep and bringing snacks to the session. The American Bar Association’s Section of Dispute Resolution (2012) has produced an excellent guide “Preparing for complex civil mediation” which is designed to be distributed to mediation clients who are represented by attorneys.
This kind of advice, and much more, can and often should be provided by the mediator via in-person pre-session meetings or phone and video communication. Any information intended to prepare the parties, especially those inexperienced with mediation, and information obtained from the parties for the benefit of the mediator, requires communication well before the session begins. These pre-sessions can be scheduled as part of the initial contract or agreement with the parties.
The first and most important task in planning for any mediation, especially with large groups, is to identify all of those involved or affected. The participant identification process often requires intense interviewing and networking to make sure that all of the critical players are invited to the table and strongly encouraged to attend. This important preparation activity insures that ALL relevant parties including decision makers and any persons who could be affected by potential agreements at the session are included. When there is a dispute, stakeholders from all factions/groups/sides must be represented. Without participation and buy-in for the process and for any agreed upon outcomes, compliance for those not present is likely to be greatly diminished or non-existent, and any agreements may be actively opposed by “spoilers.”
For groups facing complex or multi-issue conflicts, determining whom to include can be very difficult. Not only is it important to identify representatives of all possible viewpoints and interests, but also it can be critical to balance participation so that no group is over or underrepresented. In addition to including the strong proponents of various attitudes, interests, or actions, it can also be useful to include parties who are not directly involved in resolving the existing problem or conflict, but who might be part of a supportive community or network that will follow up and help to preserve and implement any agreements after the session.
An effective way of guaranteeing inclusion of all relevant parties can be labeled “fanning out,” by which I mean asking the parties who were originally identified to provide contacts for others involved in the situation that includes both supporters and opponents. It is often also possible for the mediator or case manager to obtain membership lists of organizations to use in soliciting participation. If there is doubt about whether any individual or organizational representatives should be included, I believe it is best to err on the side of inclusion.