Drawing on his work as a researcher and practicing mediator in interpersonal organizational conflict, the author argues that pre-caucusing—a separate meeting between the mediator and each of the stakeholders before they are ever brought together into a joint session—can not only overcome many of the negatives often associated with caucusing, but has the potential of becoming a pillar of conflict management. This is especially so when pre-caucusing is integrated into a transformative mediation framework. Pre-caucusing affords stakeholders the opportunity to vent and be heard at a critical time in the mediation process, when it can reduce defensiveness and increase creativity. Once in the joint session, stakeholders communicate with each other with less mediator interference.
Wherever choices exist, there is potential
for disagreement. Such differences,
when handled properly, can result in richer, more effective, creative
solutions. But alas, it is difficult to
consistently turn differences into opportunities. When disagreement is poorly dealt with, the outcome can be contention. Contention creates a sense of psychological distance between
people, such as feelings of dislike, alienation, and disregard. Such feelings can get in the way of
effective communication and resolution of even the most minute perceived
differences (Billikopf 2000).
Deep-seated interpersonal conflict
requires an enormous amount of skill to mediate, even when the best of
present-day theory is put into practice by trained and skilled mediators. Yet others who may have little mediation training,
such as facilitators, may at times find themselves in the role of
Despite years of experience as an
admired and skillful facilitator, a colleague confessed that mediation required
specialized skills. He described a
recent intervention as a third-party neutral, one where he felt thrown into a
lion’s den. The stakeholders became
involved in an ugly escalation right in front of him. As a mediator he felt impotent to help, and was even threatened
by one irate stakeholder.
There are a number of subtle
differences between what facilitators and mediators do. Although they both draw from a subset of
common tools, there are important distinctions. Generally speaking, facilitators tend to help groups through the
process of problem solving and creative decision making. Mediators often deal with stakeholders who
may be more openly antagonistic toward each other.
Facilitators, in many cases, work
with situations where people may not know the way, but are excited about
finding a common direction. Mediators,
in contrast, often work with those who have lost faith in the other
stakeholder, as well as any hope of resolving the challenges in a mutually
positive or amicable fashion. Having
made such broad generalizations, it is important to note that individual
mediators and facilitators vary enormously both in philosophy and
There are times when interpersonal
conflict may force a facilitator to concentrate on individual or group
antagonisms. At times like this, the
facilitator may benefit from additional mediation skills.
The focus of this paper is on the
contributions of caucusing as a
mediation tool, and more specifically, the use of pre-caucusing. In caucusing, the third-party neutral meets
separately with each stakeholder, in the absence of the other contending
party. In pre-caucusing, these separate
meetings take place before the
mediator ever brings the stakeholders into a joint session (Billikopf 1994;
While countless factors are
involved in successful mediation, some are so compelling that they may be
called pillars of mediation.
Pre-caucusing may well be such a pillar.
With notable exceptions, caucusing
has received a somewhat uneven and often shallow treatment in the
literature. Little is said explicitly about pre-caucusing. Certain value assumptions about mediation
further complicate some of the controversy surrounding the topic. One of the most important of these values
involves mediator choice between a transformative
(Bush & Folger 1994) and the
more traditional directive
The directive approach tends to focus on finding an acceptable
agreement—one that may involve settling
or compromising—between the
contending parties. It is sometimes
called directive because of the large amount of power and responsibility placed
on the mediator. Some mediators may
come close to acting as arbitrators, imposing a solution on the
participants. Of course, mediators do not
normally start out thinking that they will impose a solution. As situations become more difficult and
emotional, however, it is increasingly likely that directive tactics will be
utilized (Bush and Folger 1994; Folger, Marshall, & Stutman 1997; Lewicki et al., 1994).
stakeholders to retain maximum control over the process
atmosphere where parties can begin to connect interpersonally (i.e., provide
mutual recognition or support)
parties become better negotiators and reduce dependence on neutrals
solutions that are based on a careful understanding of the problem, rather than
rushing into agreements that may be short-lived.
A study on self-esteem found that
people prefer conflict management situations in which they have added control
over the results, even when such control may mean making greater concessions
(Swann 1996). My own preference towards
transformative mediation affects how I see and utilize caucusing.
We shall first review what is said
about pre-caucusing in the literature.
The positive and negative attributions often associated with caucusing,
and particularly, the special contribution played by pre-caucusing, are
mentioned next. Examples of
pre-caucusing are drawn from my involvement
as a researcher and mediation practitioner in organizational settings.
Pre-caucusing in the Literature
Little is said in the literature
about either pre-caucusing or the timing of caucusing in general. For instance, Moore suggests, “Mediators
should take care not to schedule caucuses prematurely, when parties are still
capable of working productively in joint session, nor too late, after
unproductive hostile exchanges or actions have hardened positions” (1996, p.
Bush and Folger are more explicit
about the benefits of early caucusing:
“Exploring delicate relational issues and laying further groundwork for
recognition is sometimes easier in caucus, especially in the early stages of
the process. Parties often find it
difficult at first to give recognition directly to the other party, because it
is difficult to give recognition to another person when feeling vulnerable
oneself” (1994, p. 153). Having said
that, however, they warn that breaking into caucus too early may interrupt the
“transformative momentum” or positive conversation flow between stakeholders
that may involve positive acts of mutual recognition (Bush & Folger 1994,
There is one veiled reference to
pre-caucusing, mentioned almost as an aside by Folger, Marshall, and
Stutman. In a sidebar case, a mediator
was using computer technology as an aid to conflict resolution. The mediator is reported to have met with
the stakeholders “separately prior to the session to help them clarify their
needs and positions” (1997, p. 285).
Volkema comes close to suggesting
a pre-caucus: “The first contact
between the mediator and the parties provides the first opportunity to
establish public images. If this
contact is between the mediator and one other person, only two identities need
to be negotiated, although groundwork for others can be laid at the same time”
(1988, p. 8).
Winslade and Monk (2000) are clear
proponents of the pre-caucus, especially in cases involving entrenched
disputes, although they studiously avoid the word caucus, given its negative
One of the
first steps we prefer to take in a mediation is to meet with each of the
parties separately …. In our experience, it is in these separate meetings that
a lot of the major work of the mediator is done. … the separate meetings are a
venue for significant developments in the mediation as a whole, not an optional
adjunct to the process, to be used only when things are getting sticky. In our approach, they are central to what
gets achieved (2000, p. 137).
Despite Winslade and Monk’s use of
the pre-caucus, I found they failed to take advantage of all of the
pre-caucus’s transformative possibilities. In the joint session stakeholders
tend to address the mediator rather than each other. In fairness to Winslade and Monk, this happens even in the
approach used by Bush and Folger (1994).
Positive Contributions of Caucusing
Positive attributes usually
associated with caucusing include:
whether to bring the parties together into a joint session (Moore 1987; Moore
opportunity to stakeholders to vent (Blades 1984; Emery & Jackson 1989;
Hobbs 1999; Hohlt 1996; Moore 1987; Moore 1996; Pruitt et al. 1989; Welton, Pruitt, & McGillicuddy 1988)
each party feel understood by the mediator (Emery & Jackson 1989; Hobbs
1999; Hohlt 1996; Moore 1987; Moore 1996; Pruitt et al. 1989; Volkema 1988; Welton, Pruitt, & McGillicuddy 1988)
positions and needs (Blades 1984; Castrey & Castrey 1987; Emery &
Jackson 1989; Hobbs 1999; Hohlt 1996; Moore 1987; Moore 1996; Pruitt et al. 1989; Volkema 1988; Welton,
Pruitt, & McGillicuddy 1988)
parties of the benefits of mediation (Moore 1987; Moore 1996; Volkema 1988)
stakeholders on effective communication and negotiation techniques (Hobbs 1999;
Moore 1987; Moore 1996; Volkema 1988)
to stakeholders’ higher principles (Blades, 1984; Hobbs 1999; Hohlt 1996; Moore
1987; Moore 1996; Pruitt et al. 1989;
Volkema 1988; Welton, Pruitt, & McGillicuddy 1988; Winslade & Monk
Each of the next several sections
(1) presents a key decision or outcome of mediation, then (2) underscores the
contributions of caucusing followed by (3) the additional benefits of
Deciding to Bring Parties Together
The ideal is to bring the
stakeholders together so they can make a joint decision and retain maximum
control over the situation. An
important outcome of effective mediation is to enable parties to handle future
challenges without a mediator.
While the results of mediation can
be markedly superior to those obtained through other third-party interventions
(such as arbitration), this is not necessarily so with substandard mediation
(Castrey & Castrey 1987). When
things go wrong in mediation, stakeholders may take advantage of the sense of
safety they feel in order to escalate the contention to even higher levels than
before. It is possible that the mediator can do more harm than good by bringing the parties together.
Contributions of caucusing
Moore suggests that a mediator may
use caucusing to deal with relationship problems, and that at times a neutral
third party may want to “discourage or prevent the parties from returning to
joint session ... when extremely strong emotions [might] be a major stumbling
block to further negotiations” (1987, p. 88).
Further contributions of
A central aim of the pre-caucus is
for the mediator to assess the potential benefits and harm of bringing
stakeholders together, before any
damage is done. When contention is
allowed to come into the mediation session, the opportunity for stakeholders to
start with a clean slate is compromised.
Emotional escalation, as Moore (1987) suggests, may also have a negative
effect on reaching agreement.
In one of my early efforts as a
mediator, a manager not only refused to look at his assistant in the joint
session, but turned his chair so as to present his back to her. After this experience I developed a litmus
test to better help me gauge the likelihood that a joint session would be
successful: asking a stakeholder for
what he or she values in the other (Billikopf 2000). This question is so telling because people involved in
deep-seated conflict may have trouble finding anything positive to say about
another (Bush & Folger 1994). This
is not a question to ask at the outset, as stakeholders may be in too much pain
to see very clearly. Nor should the
mediator take the first negative expression as final. (For additional tests see
Lewicki, et al. 1994, p. 360-361.)
In one difficult case, a top
manager could not make a single positive remark about a middle manager who
worked for him, despite the positive things that had been said about him. I shared with the top manager my experience
that there was little likelihood of mediation success where an individual could
find nothing positive to say about another, and suggested a short break. When we resumed our conversation, the
recalcitrant manager was waiting for me with a list of sincere, positive
feelings about the other stakeholder.
Opportunity to Vent
sat on either side of the table, glaring hostilely at each other. At the head of the table, a schoolteacher in
her thirties was explaining the service.
“First you, Mr. and Mrs. A, will have a chance to tell your side of the
story and Mr. and Mrs. Z will listen quietly.
Then you, Mr. and Mrs. Z, will have the same opportunity. After that we will discuss the situation and
try to find a way to resolve it ... .
While each side was telling its story, there were outbursts from the
other of “that’s not true” or “wait a minute,” which the mediator strove to
contain. (Pruitt et al. 1989, p. 202)
Mediators often struggle
unsuccessfully to maintain control over conflict escalation. Early joint session phases where
stakeholders share their stories, come up with ground rules, or begin to
interact, frequently lead to unconstructive exchanges. “After each parent has voiced concerns, the
two parents are encouraged to discuss the issues freely. In the majority of
cases, an argument ensues,” say Emery & Jackson, who discuss child custody
disputes. “The fight is almost always
unproductive ...” (1989, p. 6).
Kenneth Kressel explains that it
is a “common theme in the mediation cannon” (p. 25) to let each party tell
their side of the story in front of the other.
He then shares the destructive effect of this approach: “Mrs. Smith would accept my invitation [to
tell her side of the story] with relish, explaining that they were here because
Mr. Smith was a worthless lout who cared nothing for his children or common
decency and had been vilifying and humiliating her for years. For all she knew, he might also be an
alcoholic and child abuser. His
cross-dressing was a matter of record.
She was in mediation by order of the court and was certainly willing to
do her best to encourage Mr. Smith to ‘finally be a father’ but was, shall we
say, skeptical. Whatever the tonic
benefits of this outburst for Mrs. Smith, for Mr. Smith and myself the results
were clearly unhappy: he would be
provoked into an apoplectic rebuttal and I into a dismal contemplation of other
lines of work. Yes, I exaggerate. But only a little” (1994, p. 26).
Some mediators feel that such loss
of control is unavoidable, part of the process, or even necessary (Emery &
Jackson 1989, Rothman 1997). I contend, however, that there is a better
way; that stakeholders have already experienced what does not work, and
remember it well. It is hardly
necessary for them to re-experience it now in front of the mediator. Most third-party neutrals would probably
welcome an approach where such dysfunctional escalations were either greatly
reduced or completely eliminated.
Some have suggested strategies for
reducing such futile outbursts, including telling one party to remain silent or
focus on listening (Hobbs 1999) while the other speaks. To make the point, the listening party may be
given a notepad and asked to take notes (Emery & Jackson 1989). It has also been suggested that joint
sessions be held in a public place to help stakeholders tone down their
emotions (Folger, Marshall, & Stutman 1997). While the note-taking suggestion has some merits, in this context
such artifacts may delay contentious outbursts rather than prevent them.
Contributions of caucusing
Stakeholders may have some very
poignant and deeply antagonistic feelings towards each other. When these can be vented in front of the
mediator, the stakeholder often has less of a need to vent in a destructive
manner in front of the opposing stakeholder.
Defensiveness is reduced and creativity increased as the mediator
protects stakeholders from further mutual abuse.
There is little disagreement on
this point: while involved in caucusing
stakeholders are less hostile than in joint sessions (Welton, Pruitt, &
McGillicuddy 1988). When conflict
escalates into contentiousness, as in these episodes, the mediator not only
permits stakeholders to lose face, but just as importantly, she or he loses
both control (Butler 1994) and face (Volkema 1988) in front of the
Further contributions of
When dealing with acquaintances or
strangers, individuals often go out of their way to make an effort to project
their best possible behavior. This is
especially true in what could be called a ”courting period.” This honeymoon period may last years, when
stakeholders view their relationship as fair and equitable. When the rules of proper interpersonal
exchange are violated (Brown, 1986) and someone feels taken advantage of, the
situation can change quickly.
Similarly, in a stakeholder’s
relationship with a mediator—assuming the mediator is a stranger and/or has the
respect of the stakeholders—individuals often try extra hard to be on their
best behavior (Folger, Marshall, & Stutman 1997), lest the mediator think
that they are culpable. Stakeholders
are more likely to want to continue to make a good impression on the mediator
after they have established themselves as reasonable people in the
pre-caucus. Volkema suggests that “it
is not unlikely that the parties will have established one image with each
other and another image with the mediator” (1988, p. 11).
People also attempt to be
consistent: “Consistency gives actors a
desirable degree of predictability and trustworthiness, and it generates liking
and respect” (Schlenker 1980, p. 232).
Stakeholders are likely to feel a greater need to be seen as
consistently reasonable by a mediator who has had sufficient time to meet with
them individually. Effective listening
is a very powerful tool, and people tend to respect those mediators who can
listen with care and empathy.
Once the parties have exchanged
insults in front of a third-party neutral in traditional mediation, on the
other hand, much of the damage has been done.
Stakeholders feel less motivated to show their best after exposing their
It is not that stakeholders
pretend to be someone they are not.
Because stakeholders meeting with the mediator in the pre-caucus know
they will be meeting with the other party in a joint session, it is my
experience that they are likely to share their own shortcomings, rather than
wait for the other party to bring these out.
It is this new facework (allowing another to save face) between
stakeholders that the mediator wants to encourage in order to give parties an
opportunity for a fresh start that is not based on blame.
Helping Each Party Feel Understood
It is difficult to expect
stakeholders who have been involved in deep-seated conflict to put aside their
own needs and listen to and focus on the needs of the other party (Bush &
Folger, 1994). The natural tendency is
for stakeholders to want to express their own perspectives first. The more deep-seated and emotional the
conflict, the greater this tendency.
At times, tension in deep-seated
interpersonal conflict situations can reach almost unbearable levels. In mediating such conflicts within
organizations, it is common for stakeholders to strongly contemplate withdrawal
from the enterprise. Psychological
separation from the other stakeholder and possibly from the organization has
already taken place. For instance, in
child custody mediation, parties have already separated physically and
psychologically from each other, yet need to work together for the benefit of
the children involved.
Contributions of caucusing
Because stakeholders have the
opportunity to meet separately with the mediator, each gets the opportunity to
explain his or her perspective first, before having to attend to the other
participant. When the stakeholder feels
understood, an enormous emotional burden is lifted, thus making him or her more
receptive to listen to others (Covey 1989).
It is true that stakeholders have a special need to be understood by the
other party in the contention, but being understood by the mediator contributes
much. Often, it is a necessary step in
terms of a stakeholder gaining enough confidence to proceed further.
Some individuals tend to be more
silent than others. Caucusing increases
the chances that an individual will talk (Hohlt 1996) and express his or her
feelings. It is hardly possible for the
mediator to help individuals who refuse to speak about “where it hurts.” Mediators have the opportunity to show
empathy in a caucus situation without arousing jealousies in other party.
Further contributions of
It is at the start of mediation
that stakeholders are perhaps most apprehensive as to what mediation may
bring. Parties often come to the table
with every defensive mechanism armed and ready to deploy (such as sulking
silence, angry outbursts, combative body language). They may have trouble looking at the mediator, let alone the
When a pre-caucus is used and the
other party is not present, this stakeholder frustration and despair is
re-directed in more positive ways. To
have an empathic ear to listen to a stakeholder in such a non-judgmental way is
powerful medicine indeed. I have seen
people who were supposed to be “silent types” open up and talk freely. Men and women have wept openly as they
released tension. Such emotional
releases are not available to stakeholders in more traditional mediation.
The Exploration of Needs and Benefits of
The mediator attempts to
understand individual items under dispute, as well as the general perspectives
of stakeholders, and helps stakeholders keep alive the benefits of mediation
(in contrast to other alternatives such as arbitration).
Contributions of caucusing
An important benefit of caucusing
is being able to explore beyond positional bargaining, into stakeholder
interests and needs (Fisher, Ury, & Patton 1991). Stakeholders can also be
reminded that mediation confers tangible benefits over interventions where they
have less control. This is more likely
to happen when individuals feel less vulnerable and defensive, and are more
willing to think aloud without feeling forced into making concessions. A mediator can increase her or his
understanding of the situation through such exploration, but more important
yet, the self-awareness of each stakeholder increases. For instance, it may become clear that a
stakeholder desires an apology, rather than some other remedy.
Further contributions of
When disputants enter the joint
session with the benefit of a pre-caucus, the mediator can often take a less
visible role. Each stakeholder comes
to the joint session possessing enhanced clarity about the issues and
In one situation, after I listened
to stakeholders during a pre-caucus, they were able to go on and solve the
problem on their own. Bad feelings had
developed between them concerning how each introduced the other to visitors and
the media. Not only did they solve this
problem on their own; they also dealt with related underlying issues, and even
went on to discuss opportunities for future career growth and cooperation
As a neutral I sometimes do little
more than introduce topics brought up during the pre-caucus. Allowing the stakeholders to solve an easier
problem early on may give them the needed boost to deal with more challenging
issues later (Blades 1984; Emery & Jackson 1989). Furthermore, a mediator who understands the issues involved can
make sure that significant issues are not ignored. Despite previous antagonisms, communication between stakeholders
during joint sessions is sometimes so fast paced that I have to scramble to
understand and note their agreements. At times like these I feel like an
unneeded observer. Setting up a situation where stakeholders address each other
with little mediator interference takes transformative mediation to the next
level. Although not all cases achieve this ultimate success, mediators can
count on better communication flow and reduced contentiousness between
Educate Stakeholders on
One measure of mediation success
is when it equips stakeholders to handle future challenges on their own. While this may not necessarily happen after
a single experience with mediation, the stakeholders can take with them
increased self-awareness and conflict management skills.
Stakeholders may be shown how they
can present a perspective using neutral or non-provocative language (Hobbs
1999) and without causing the other to lose face. An important part of conflict
management is helping stakeholders recognize the need for the other party to
build and save face (Ting-Toomey 1999;
Volkema 1988; Blades 1984; Moore 96).
In the absence of these skills, people are likely to revert to a more
dysfunctional and emotional approach to communication. Participants may also develop a better
understanding of the nature of conflict — learning how to divide big issues
into smaller ones and what constitutes a proper apology, for instance. Both stakeholders gain negotiation power as
they improve their ability to communicate in effective ways.
Contributions of caucusing
Mediators have the opportunity to
privately discuss participant behaviors that are working, as well as those that
are not. This avoids the appearance of
favoritism associated with public compliments, as well as the loss of face
connected with open criticism.
Further contributions of
It is hard to expect the
stakeholders to have a positive mutual conversation when they lack even the
most rudimentary notion of how their communication strategies affect the other
stakeholders. Those who grasp new insights
into the negotiation process early on are more likely to enter the joint
session feeling confident and prepared, with some control over the results.
Among the potential positive
outcomes of transformative mediation is giving parties the opportunity to
apologize and to accept an apology (Bush & Folger 1994). One stakeholder had a history of vitriolic
temper outbreaks when I first met with him.
His anger often manifested in shouting and profanity. During the pre-caucus, it became
increasingly clear that this stakeholder felt no regret about his temper
tantrums. He was quick to both minimize
the extent of his anger, and to justify his bullying behavior. Had he defended such behavior in a joint
session, his credibility would have been greatly damaged. Through a series of role-plays and conversations
during the pre-caucus, he came to understand the importance of offering an
apology for his profanity and anger.
Furthermore, he suggested that the topic be brought up early on in the
joint session so he could have a chance to apologize. During the first role-play his words had sounded shallow at
best. The actual apology offered during
the joint session was moving and sincere.
Regular caucusing has one
advantage over pre-caucusing here.
While the mediator can observe and coach a stakeholder during a
pre-caucus, some dysfunctional communication approaches only manifest
themselves during the joint session.
This is not a fatal flaw of pre-caucusing, because a regular caucus can
be utilized later to deal with such issues.
Much of what has been said here
also applies to the idea of appealing to a stakeholder’s higher
principles. Many transformative
opportunities that could otherwise be lost present themselves during the
pre-caucus. For instance, an
owner-operator said something touchingly positive about one of his managers
during the pre-caucus. I suggested that
it would be magnificent if he could share that thought with the other
stakeholder during the joint session. The
owner explained that he would never do so.
I challenged him to reconsider, but left the ultimate decision up to
him. The individual chose to share the
affirming comment during the joint session, taking ownership for that decision,
thus making it his own.
Negative Connotations of Caucusing
A number of challenges are
associated with caucusing, including:
stakeholder truthfulness (Pruitt et al.
1989; Volkema 1988; Welton, Pruitt, & McGillicuddy 1988)
bias (Blades 1984; Engram and Markowitz 1985; Moore 1987; Moore 1996; Pruitt et al. 1989; Volkema 1988; Welton,
Pruitt, & McGillicuddy 1988)
control or abuse of power (Blades 1984; Folger, Marshall, & Stutman 1997;
Keltner 1965; Moore 1987; Moore 1996; Pruitt et al. 1989; Volkema 1988)
likelihood that disputants will know how to handle future challenges (Pruitt et
violation of confidentiality (Blades 1984; Moore 1987; Moore 1996)
of positive movement (Moore 1996; Welton 1988)
for the other stakeholder to use in an effort to build his or her own case
Attacks on Directive Mediation
As we shall see, most criticisms
associated with caucusing are really attacks on directive mediation, rather
than on caucusing itself. Where
caucusing is instead used to increase stakeholder control through transformative
mediation, most of these objections melt away.
As positive as mediator empathy
toward a stakeholder may be, some fear this may lead to stakeholder
untruthfulness. They reason that the
absence of the other party during the caucus leaves the stakeholder free to
exaggerate. Others argue that caucusing
may lead to deals between the neutral party and one of the stakeholders. “Disputants often fear that clandestine
deals or coalitions [may take place] between the other party and the mediator”
(Moore 1996, p. 200).
Yet others suggest that caucusing
simply gives the mediator too much control, lends itself to abuse of mediator
power, and does little to equip stakeholders for future conflict in life. Instead, they argue, stakeholders may become
more dependent on mediation. “Caucuses
... are explicit attempts to narrow issues, to push for compromise, and to
synthesize arguments and positions.” (Folger, Marshall, and Stutman 1997, p.
262). We even read, “caucuses provide
mediators with the greatest opportunity to manipulate parties into agreement”
(Moore 1996, p. 325). Volkema warns that mediators with a vested interest may
promote one outcome over another (1988).
The assumption, in all these cases, is that agreement is reached during
is nothing inherent in caucusing itself, however, that leads to these
difficulties. Quite the
contrary, Engram and Markowitz suggest that “... the judicious use of caucusing
in ... mediation can even enhance the perception of neutrality and will result
in increased trust in the process of mediation” (1985, p. 25). Likewise, where transformative mediation is
used, caucusing may be seen as a tool to help stakeholders become better
negotiators (Bush and Folger 1994).
In transformative mediation where
it is the stakeholders who solve their
own disputes, there is little to be gained by attempts to influence the
mediator. Stakeholders need not be
concerned that the mediator will make a secret agreement with the other
stakeholders. Caucusing is used to
teach negotiation skills to stakeholders, rather than to circumvent stakeholder
Violation of Confidentiality
Another negative associated with
caucusing is the potential for sharing confidential information obtained from
one stakeholder, either purposely or through a slip. Certainly, mediators need to be careful not to divulge
confidential information. Yet it should
be clear that the purpose of caucusing is to help stakeholders better
understand their own needs and prepare to communicate these to the other party
in the joint session—not to talk about issues stakeholders want to keep secret
from the other participant. True, some
subjects are originally brought up in a somewhat raw manner. These are translated into more effective
messages that tend to reduce defensiveness.
For instance, if a stakeholder feels the other is inconsiderate or
selfish, the mediator helps the stakeholder better understand critical
incidents that may have led to this evaluation. During the joint session, the incidents and behaviors are
discussed without the labels.
As a mediator, I note all the
issues that are important to stakeholders during the pre-caucus, and give them
a chance to expose these during the joint session: “A, Could you share with B the story you told me about X.” Opportunities are balanced for both
stakeholders to bring up issues that are then jointly discussed.
Sometimes ethical issues require
disclosure, such as when a spouse is hiding an asset from the other during a
divorce settlement. In those situations,
Blades (1984) suggests that the mediator make it clear to the pertinent
stakeholder that the neutral’s continued involvement in the mediation depends
on the stakeholder disclosing this information to the other party. Standards have been suggested for issues
with and limits to confidentiality (Milne 1985; Moore 1987). Caucusing does not cause an inherently
unethical situation to develop, however.
It simply affords the mediator an opportunity to help correct an unfair
situation. “Much of the controversy
surrounding the issue of caucusing ... stems from differences in training or
orientation rather than from a real debate about ethics” (Engram and Markowitz
1985, pp. 24-25).
Interruption of Positive Movement
Caucusing may be called at any
time, by stakeholders or by the mediator.
Stakeholders may even wish to caucus within their own team, without the
mediator. Alternatively, the mediator
may need time alone and call a “mediator caucus” (Castrey and Castrey 1987, p.
15). Any type of caucusing may interrupt
the positive flow of the conversation.
The great advantage of pre-caucusing is that it does not interrupt the
positive flow of communication that may be established during the joint
session. Furthermore, pre-caucusing
probably reduces interruptions after the joint meeting has begun.
Free Time to Solidify Stance
The concern that caucusing permits
one party time to further solidify her or his own stance while the other is
engaged in caucusing, is simply a non-issue.
In transformative mediation one of the
roles of the mediator is to help stakeholders consider potential pitfalls. Mediators help stakeholders truly understand
the problem and thus avoid quick unworkable solutions.
Contention creates a sense of
psychological distance between people, turning even minute differences into
ones that seem insurmountable. A tool
of particular value is the caucus, where the mediator meets separately with
stakeholders. The literature has shed
light into both the positive and negative contributions of caucusing. Positive aspects of caucusing include giving
parties an opportunity to tell their story and be heard, explore needs, and
vent privately. Mediators may also take
advantage of caucusing to coach parties and help them understand the tools that
will help them become better negotiators in the future.
Interestingly, most of the
criticisms associated with caucusing derive from a directive mediation
approach. When caucusing is used within
a transformative framework, most of these potential negatives disappear. In transformative mediation the stakeholders
remain the primary actors. Not only do
the contending parties retain control over the outcome, they are also equipped
with many of the tools they will need to solve future problems: “A skillful transformative mediator can use
caucuses in a manner that not only avoids the problem-solving pitfalls [found
in the directive approach] but actually builds transformative momentum over the
course of a session” (Bush and Folger, 1994, p. 270).
Although in the literature we find
some allusions to the benefits of the pr-caucus, very little is said explicitly
about it. When pre-caucusing is used
with a transformative approach to mediation, the benefits of caucusing are multiplied,
and the potential negatives are further reduced.
The main reason why pre-caucusing
is effective is that the mediator affords each stakeholder the opportunity to
be heard when he or she needs it the most.
A conflict situation that calls for mediation, almost by definition, is
a difficult one. Stakeholders are most
often focused internally and have little capacity to listen to someone else at
the beginning of mediation. This
internal focus tends to extinguish creativity by increasing negative emotion
and defensiveness. A stakeholder who
feels heard in the pre-caucus is better able to listen to the other stakeholder
and to connect in a more positive way. The groundwork laid out during the
pre-caucus allows stakeholders to address each other with little mediator
Mediation has the potential to do
much good. Poorly carried out
mediation, where contenders feel they can exchange insults in a psychologically
safer environment, can do more harm than other forms of neutral-party
interventions. The pre-caucus affords
mediators the opportunity to make difficult decisions as to whether to bring
contenders into a joint session.
Sometimes the most productive
approaches are the simplest, and this is certainly true with the
pre-caucus. Caucusing as a mediation
tool has been partially misunderstood and certainly has not been used to its
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Gregorio Billikopf-Encina is the author of Labor Management in Agriculture:
Cultivating Personnel Productivity.
Billikopf received his Bachelor of Science in Plant Science from UC
Davis, and his Masters in Human Resource Management from California State
University, Stanislaus. Since 1981, he
has been employed with the University of California Agricultural Extension as a
Labor Management Farm Advisor. Gregorio
has been a frequent national and international speaker in his field, including
presentations in Russia, Canada, Uganda, México, and his native Chile. Research and teaching emphases have been in
the areas of employee selection and testing, incentive pay and pay issues,
conflict resolution, employee discipline, performance appraisal, worker
motivation, supervision, negotiation skills and interpersonal relations.
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