The typical mediation begins with a joint session in which all parties and their counsel participate. Immediately thereafter the mediator separates the parties into caucuses and begins a process of shuttling back and forth between them until the mediation is completed. Most people find the caucus to be a safe and comfortable environment, in which they can talk candidly with the mediator. It also allows them to transfer to the mediator the sometimes unpleasant task of communicating further with the opposition.
Given the general acceptance of the caucus model many people are surprised to learn that it is not the only way to mediate. In fact there are some mediators who use caucuses only sparingly and other who do not use them at all. Instead they prefer to conduct extended joint sessions in which the mediator facilitates a full discussion of the issues by all participants and encourages them to bargain across the table until an agreement is eventually reached.
Why the difference in approach? There are a number of reasons, but the most common explanation is probably that the caucus can easily be misused. Many people come to mediation feeling that their task is to persuade the mediator in caucus that they are right and that the opposition is wrong. Assuming that they can accomplish that goal, they expect the mediator to sell their case to the people in the other room. The problem here, of course, is that the mediator is obligated to remain neutral and cannot become an advocate for one side. Another disadvantage of the caucus model is that the parties are depending primarily on the mediator to explain their case to the opposition. Since the mediator knows far less about the case than the parties, this method of communication often proves to be inefficient and quite time-consuming.
Every case presents its own set of problems, and it is unwise in my view to have preconceived ideas about the use of caucuses. Some cases require extensive caucusing simply because the parties cannot communicate effectively without the use of an intermediary. In all cases it seems that caucusing is helpful at some point so that the mediator can engage in devil’s advocacy, reality-testing, and case evaluation on a confidential basis.
It is often profitable for the mediator to caucus with each party before the joint session as well as afterwards. By hearing first from each party the mediator can be better prepared to guide the participants thorough a productive joint session in which they present their points of view without creating further animosity.
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