Grain of salt: how much does mediator behavior influence the outcome of mediation?

taking mediation research with a grain of saltThose of us who mediate like to believe that our skills and temperament influence parties who are poles apart to move toward resolution, reconciliation, or settlement. But how influential are we really?

My colleague, attorney and mediator Stephanie West Allen, steers readers toward an article by ADR academics James A. Wall, Jr. and Suzanne Chan-Serifin, “Civil Case Mediations: Observations and Conclusions“, in the new edition of The Jury Expert. This article appears to cast some doubt on how mighty that influence may be.

Concerned by the absence of “empirical studies that report mediators’, plaintiffs’ and defendants’ behaviors in mediation or more importantly that indicate how the various participants’ behaviors may influence the process or the outcome”, authors Wall and Chan-Serifin undertook an inquiry into mediation practice, observing 62 civil cases conducted by 21 attorneys and eight judges with substantial legal and ADR experience.

These observations led them to some conclusions that mediators may find humbling:

When we reflect on our study and its results, we find civil case mediation is a lot like aspirin: it works, but we don’t know exactly how. Consider that we found mediation frequently resulted in settlements but the settlement rate was dependent upon the case type. In attempting to obtain agreements, mediators pressed defendants as well as plaintiffs whenever they expressed high aspirations; however, they pressed plaintiffs more strongly than the defendants. But their pressing – like all of their other techniques – appeared to have little effect upon case settlements.

What are the practical implications of these findings? The primary implication – for mediators – is that they should acknowledge that the outcome of the mediation (e.g., agreement or nonagreement) is to some extent independent of the mediator’s behavior. This suggestion is consistent with Judge Wayne Brazil’s charge that mediators should not exaggerate their responsibility, ability or contribution to the mediation (Brazil, 2007). Rather, they should understand that they are hosting a negotiation process. . . .

The final implication is for scholars as well as practitioners. In the last decade there have been approximately 80 articles that advise mediators on the tactics and strategies they should employ. They are told to control emotions, obtain apologies, overcome perceptual errors, facilitate, define the problem, evaluate, not evaluate, not believe attorneys, be neutral, be fair, improvise, manage risks, focus on central elements, etc. Most of these prescriptions and proscriptions should not be proffered, because they assume the mediators control the mediation process. As noted previously, our evidence, as well as that from other studies indicate mediators do not have substantial control over the process. Rather, it seems that the case type and the plaintiffs’ behavior are the more influential factors.

Mediators, don’t panic yet. Sixty-two civil cases mediated by 29 mediators does not seem a large enough sample to draw reliable, universally applicable conclusions from. Stephanie has already raised some good questions herself in her post. I would add some of my own.

  • What model or philosophy of mediation practice do these 29 mediators rely upon? It’s not clear from the article, and the differences among the various approaches to mediation practice, including the role that each participant plays and how broadly or narrowly issues are defined, are significant. They matter. I for one would welcome research that examines what influence if any different models of mediation may bear on resolving conflict. It’s time at last to test the assumptions that so many of us hold about the efficacy of the various models of practice (and of course we all have our favorites).
  • What about other kinds of disputes?  What would the results be if instead the study involved observations of disputes not in litigation – cases in which the law and the court play no role?
  • What about the identities of the participants themselves? Does it matter that the mediators were all members of the bar and that these cases involved attorneys and represented clients? What differences might we observe if the professional identities of the players were wholly different?

As provocative and arresting as the conclusions may be that the authors draw from their observations, I don’t think it’s time yet for mediators to rewrite their marketing materials or for mediation trainers and educators to revise mediation training materials or course outlines. The authors are correct to point out that we most certainly do need more studies of mediation. Our profession – and consumers of mediation services – would benefit from further and in-depth research that illuminates whether and how mediators influence the parties at the negotiation table.

5 responses to “Grain of salt: how much does mediator behavior influence the outcome of mediation?

  1. Great topic! Yes, there are so many factors to consider and it’s impossible to take one conflict, with the same participants, and test it under different circumstances. I believe that the mediators can and sometimes do affect the outcome (and not just whether or not an agreement is reached), whether intentionally or unintentionally. I also think that the participants have the most control over the process, even in cases where mediation is court-mandated, whether they realize it or not.

    My own opinion is that mediators should strive to remove themselves from the process as much as possible. Of course I have the luxury of mediating in a model that allows for the process to take as many sessions as possible so it’s easy to step back and let the participants communicate without too much intervention.

    When mediators make suggestions or proffer their own opinions, it takes away from the empowerment that can happen when participants come up with their own solutions.

  2. Rick, thanks so much for your comment.

    It would be interesting to know what model of mediation you practice, but I would point out that even electing not to act can be a conscious choice that can affect the process.

    I see the role of the mediator differently from you. I don’t evaluate, but I’m of the mind that mediators are not passive, and evaluation is not our only choice when it comes to assisting the parties. Mediators can be actively participating as facilitators, whether creating order from the chaos that conflict and unfocused debate otherwise produces, using the technique of reframing that invites disputants to see their dispute in more constructive ways or asking questions to test reality or spur reflection, perspective-taking, or problem solving. They can do all of that, yet still leave issue identification and the ultimate resolution in the parties’ full control.

    However, the question that remains unanswered from that study is, whether and how do these or other purposeful acts by mediators affect the outcome? I believe based on my own experience as a practitioner that mediators’ behavior does affect the outcome somehow, but where’s the proof? We need evidence, not anecdote or speculation, to know for certain. It’s why I’ve argued here that studies of mediator behavior must also take into account mediator philosophy – facilitative, evaluative, transformative, narrative, understanding-based, or some mix of some or all or none of the above. Action and inaction impact the outcome, but how and to what extent, none of us knows. I say let’s find out.

    Thanks again for contributing your views, and also for visiting this site!

  3. “The primary implication – for mediators – is that they should acknowledge that the outcome of the mediation (e.g., agreement or nonagreement) is to some extent independent of the mediator’s behavior. ” I would agree with this conclusion but I don’t think that it would change my approach to mediating. Other factors besides the mediator’s behavior will affect the outcome “to some extent.” Yes, of course they do. I have found over 15 years that parties will settle –or not settle– cases for all sorts of reasons. They are the decision-makers, not me, but that is fine. I can live with that.

  4. Thanks for this Diane. I left a lengthy comment at the article itself. In short, the mediations described are poorly managed distributive bargaining sessions where the mediators are engaged in the facilitation of a position-based zero-sum negotiation using contentious tactics by the mediator. This does not call – as the authors suggest – for LESS mediation education, training and mentoring, but more.

  5. Vickie, I couldn’t agree more with your criticism. This study reminds me of an old saying from the early days of computing: garbage in, garbage out.

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