Helping Others Resolve Differences
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Party-Directed Mediation is an approach that seeks to empower each party: to offer contenders negotiation skills that will help them direct the resolution of the present conflict and increased ability to deal with future conflict. As people become more talented negotiators, they tend to deal more effectively with conflict. The two most important elements of party-directed mediation generally include 1) a meeting between the mediator and each of the parties prior to the joint session (in a pre-caucus or pre-mediation) and 2) a joint session where parties face each other, and speak directly to each other rather than through the mediator. In some instances, the pre-caucus may be so effective that parties go on to solve their conflict without a mediator. In fact, most people solve most conflicts they face without a mediator. There are times, however, when mediators are very much needed.

Whenever people speak about empowering the parties, there seems to be quite a negative-if not defensive-reaction among some mediators and scholars. This resentment is partly justified. Those who promote party empowerment sometimes imply that such an approach is better than other mediation styles. I can think of conflicts where I simply wanted the problem to go away. Such was the case, for instance, when I had long ago discarded proof that I had paid for car insurance coverage during a Sabbatical in Chile. A year and half later I got a nasty letter from a collection agency. This was the first and only note forwarded to me. It was hard dealing with this situation from so far away. You can believe I was relieved when one of my brothers, who lives in Chile, contacted the insurance agency and played mediator between us. I hardly knew the people involved, and had no interest in mutual validation, transformative opportunities, or the like.

I know mediators who have a great gift in terms of seeing solutions that the affected parties simply cannot perceive. These skilled practitioners are able to see potential agreements, and also seem to know exactly when to speak, the tone of voice to use, the humor that is called for, and exactly what to say to get people to the point where they are able to agree. They are virtuoso artists within the profession. These mediators can see and feel what others simply cannot perceive. In my opinion, such skills and abilities will always be needed, especially in the resolution of certain types of conflicts.

There are other types of conflicts, especially those of an interpersonal nature, or those that involve people who will continue to live or work or interact, that can greatly benefit from party empowerment. This is when party-directed mediation can play a big role. This does not mean that the mediator has nothing to say or contribute. There are large portions of the pre-caucus where, indeed, the mediator mostly listens through an empathic listening approach. This active listening approach was developed by Carl Rogers and best described in his book, Client-Centered Therapy. But there is also time for the mediator to help prepare each party to become a more effective negotiator. When the parties arrive at the joint session, they face and talk to each other. There are specific questions the mediator can ask the parties before bringing them together, to find out if they are indeed ready to face each other in such a direct manner, and do so in a civil way. More harm than good can take place when parties are not ready for the joint session, and use it as a safe ground to simply insult each other further.

The concept behind Party-Directed Mediation, then, is that to the degree that the case lends itself to it, and the individuals wish to spend the time and acquire the skills to become more effective negotiators, that they can be empowered to do so. Just as people today are more likely to ask for a second opinion when it comes to their health and doctor's recommendations, there are those who wish to have a greater hand in solving their own conflicts. Some cases may involve a little bit of empowerment, while others almost complete empowerment. Some cases, such as in some victim-offender mediation, may take months of preparation and baby-steps to help the parties come together into a joint session where they face and speak to each other. Other cases, as we have said, are solved by individuals after a friend provides a good listening ear and they gather the confidence to face the other party on their own.

Gregorio Billikopf
26 June 2009