The fact of the matter is, credibility for the mediator is either eroded or strengthened in two spaces:
At the table
At the table, the mediator can establish credibility early, by being on time, looking prepared and professional and by demonstrating knowledge, empathy, active listening skills and by avoiding incendiary language or insinuations. The table is the second hardest place to establish credibility with disputants, who may have either begrudgingly agreed to attend mediation, or who have agreed to attend with their lawyers present, not understanding the nature and process of mediation. The table is also the riskiest place to maintain credibility, because it can be scuttled in an instant—by something the mediator says (or does), the lawyer says (or does), or either of the two parties say (or do).
This is just introductory credibility.
The stronger the mediator can make their own credibility at the table, the deeper the relationship between themselves and the parties in conflict will grow, based in reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proofing and liking.
Which leads us to the caucus.
In a caucus, the mediator can either wreck the credibility they have established at the table (which has led them to a private caucus in the first place) or they can use the caucus to deepen the credibility and add a layer of authority on top of it. Now, the trouble with the caucus is that this a place where a mediator’s neutrality, or their desire to see a “fair” outcome, often clash with a disputants desire to “win” the mediation. Caucuses are places where the mediator can erode credibility by playing into the hands of the party who called the caucus, or they can grow credibility by continuing to behave neutrally, or they can gain authority by overriding client self-determination and making a “suggestion” for moving forward.
This last act then moves the caucus into a space of conflict coaching (nothing wrong with that, but not in the context of a mediation) rather than keeping it corralled.
Here are some strategies for at the table and in the caucus:
- Avoid the appearance of being “the authority”—Unlike arbitration, mediators are not called to render a decision, and unlike negotiation, mediators are not called to “just focus on interests.” Emotional appeals can sway a mediator toward acting as an authority and destroying credibility.
- Navigate the caucus with caution—Preserve client self-determination, be aware of power plays (lies, deceits, misdirection, etc.) by either party and do enough back research on the parties and the material issues in conflict, so that whatever is revealed in the caucus never comes as a surprise to the mediator.
- Own/disown the table—This should not be confused with appearing powerful or in control, but preparation, controlling nonverbals, engaging with emotional intelligence, and asking balanced questions, allows the mediator to shift ownership of the results of the mediation process to the parties and ownership of the mediation platform to the mediator. This is hard and it happens subtly, but the savvy peace builder will recognize it and be able to “hold on loosely” so as to let go of the process when necessary.
Establishing and maintaining credibility is the jujitsu of mediation. And just like the art of using an opponents’ weight and momentum against them, it can be tricky to understand, and take years to master.
-Peace Be With You All-
Jesan Sorrells, MA
Principal Conflict Engagement Consultant
Human Services Consulting and Training (HSCT)
Email HSCT: email@example.com