Helping Others Resolve Differences
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Pre-caucusing (sometimes referred to as pre-mediation) is a preliminary meeting between the mediator and each of the parties prior to the joint session. This is considered quite a controversial mediation tool. Traditionally, mediators have been instructed to meet with both parties at the same time in a joint session without a pre-caucus. The main reasons found in the literature for avoiding pre-caucuses is fear of collusion between the mediator and one of the parties. This concern is warranted in those cases in which mediators take a strong directive role. However, when the pre-caucus is used as an opportunity for parties 1) to vent and 2) to be coached on how to better negotiate their own agreements, the pre-caucus can be especially effective.

In Party-Directed Mediation, contenders face and speak to each other--rather than the mediator--in the joint session. The pre-caucus is an essential element for preparing disputants for such a dialogue. An important mechanical aspect of Party-Directed Mediation is having the third party sit further away from the action, thus giving the message to the parties that they are there to speak to each other. I have been mediating since 1992 using such an approach with great success. My work focuses on deep-seated interpersonal or relational conflicts. There is a growing body of case studies and research that show that pre-caucusing can be effective in reducing emotions and improving the outcome of mediation.

Pre-caucusing and pre-mediation have been used as synonymous terms. I would suggest, however, that pre-mediation be used for preliminary work associated with explaining the mediation process to parties ahead of the joint session, and pre-caucus to indicate a longer meeting in which parties can fully vent their emotions and be coached on interpersonal negotiation skills. Once again, because the mediator in Party-Directed Mediation sits further away from the parties in the joint session, and thus encourages a direct dialogue between the parties, issues of mediator bias and impartiality play less of a role. I wrote a paper entitled "The Contributions of Caucusing and Pre-Caucusing to Mediation" which was published in 2002 by Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications Journal. I searched for arguments in the literature in favor and against any sort of caucusing during mediation.

I have also presented papers on pre-caucusing at the International Association for Conflict Management (IACM) annual meetings in Seville, Spain (2005) and in Kyoto, Japan (2009). The first speaks of pre-caucusing in the context of peer-to-peer mediation, and the latter, of pre-caucusing in the context of hierarchical conflicts (superior-subordinate mediation). You may download the free book, Party-Directed Mediation: Helping Others Resolve Differences, which covers both of these mediation approaches, as well as the 2002 paper mentioned above.

Gregorio Billikopf
26 June 2009