As mediators, We see lawyers use a variety of styles of dispute resolution advocacy. We have observed what works and what does not. Here are ten things lawyers can do that work at mediation (and in negotiations).
These ten things work because they recognize that the parties are the primary decisionmakers at mediation. The other party is your primary audience. What you must make sense to them as they are one making the decisions – along with your client.
Mediation is not court – because your audience is different. At court the audience is the judicial decision maker who is not personally effected by the outcome. How they might be persuaded is quite different to how the parties to the dispute (who are directly effected by the outcome) might be influenced. By the time a dispute gets to mediation, legal arguments and analysis will already have been exchanged – perhaps repeatedly – without having resolved the dispute (otherwise there would be no need for mediation). Effective dispute resolution advocacy needs more than just repetition of legal arguments, and whatever else has already been discussed.
Mediations, and all negotiations, are as much about listening as talking. The other side will not listen to you (and your client) unless you listen to them. Bing listened to and acknowledged is part of the other side’s needs, and listening does not cost your client anything. Listening does not mean you are agreeing. Listening allows you to discover what is important to the other side which may be less important to your client, and can therefore be traded for what is more important to your client. Listening carefully allows you to subsequently explain your client’s proposals in reference to the stated concerns of the other side – and not just your client’s needs.
Asking questions is one of the most effective forms of dispute resolution advocacy. It makes the other side feel heard. Their answers tell you what is important to them which might be less important to your client. Do not cross-examine as answers to closed questions do not give much information. Unlike at court, ask open-ended questions. Good questions do not need to be long of fully formed sentences. Try just repeating the last three words used by the other side with rising inflections – they will hear it is a question and keep talking. Listen form and repeat back, emotional and metaphorical language. It will prompt the other side to keep talking.
Parties tend to attribute the cause of disputes to the intrinsic qualities of the other party – they are unreasonable, mad, bad, liars etc. Explaining disputes by reference to intrinsic negative qualities of the other side. It also leads to offers being predicated on the negative qualities of the parties which makes it impossible for such offers to be accepted. “This whole situation arouse from your deceptions and failures and therefore you have to agree to my proposal”. It does not matter how reasonable the proposal might be, the other party cannot accept the proposal as it also means accepting the characteriations of blame, deception and failure.
They will get stuck in a dispute about the characterization of the problem and not move on to possible solutions.
The solution is to externalize the problem to something other than the intrinsic qualities of the parties: “It sounds like the unforeseen share market fluctuation has caused a problem… it seems like the banks hav changed their lending criteria since the contract was negotiated… it looks like there are gaps in the data we are working off… problems in the communication channels between your companies have led to misunderstandings… ambiguities in how parliament wrote the legislation is making this difficult for you.”
Externalising the problem separates the people from the problem, and allows them to look at solutions.
If you present a proposal first, and then explain it, the other side will stop listening once they hear the offer and start thinking about their response – rather than listening to your explanation. The better approach is to explain the rationale of your proposal (why you thing it might be of interest to the other side) before you state the proposal. The other side will listen more closely to your explanation, as they are awaiting the proposal.
If you reject a proposal saying “what! Why would my client pay you a $1M?” you will make the otherside feel obliged to give reasons why your client should pay $1M. The more times they affirm their demand for $1M, the harder it is for them to step back and consider other options. By attacking the proposal you cause them to cling to it more strongly. Rather than attacking the proposal, try:
Typically, lawyers explain proposals in reference to how it meets the needs of their own client. This will not be the primary concern of the other side who will be more concerned about their own needs. It is better to explain your proposals in refence to the stated needs and concerns of the other side – “we have taken into account what you explained this morning (here you need to specifically repeat some of what they said earlier) and because of that we thought you might be interested in this proposal” and then explain the proposal. If you explain a proposal in reference to the stated needs of the other side, it is more likely that the other side will carefully consider the proposal rather than if it is just explained in reference to your client’s own needs.
Once proposals have been exchanged you have two ways to put forward further proposals:
The substance of either new proposal might be exactly the same. Framing a further proposal as a modification of an earlier proposal of the other side will cause them to give it more favourable considering than asking them to reconsider your earlier proposal albeit it with some modifications.
Consider putting forward two or more alternative proposals within one offer -especially where there are multiple issues to be resolved. “We would be interested in knowing what you think about either XXX or YYY?”
By doing so, you do not signal what is really important to your client that the other side might leverage. Alternative proposals are less likely to elicit competitive positional responses from the other side. They may perceive you to be flexible and accommodating, and respond in the same way themselves. The alternative in which the other side shows the most interest (they may not accept it, but they might suggest a modified version) will indicate what is most important to them.
If you want the other party to behave defensively, simplistically, reactively and not listen to you; there is no better way than by de-humanising them by calling them by their technical role in the proceedings. If you want them to act reflectively, openly and thoughtfully, call them by their name. Get their permission first before using their first names.
That is what your client is paying the mediator for. If you have chosen the mediator wisely, they should know what they are doing and why they are doing it. If you are unsure of the mediator’s process, give them a call before the mediation or even before the mediator is chosen.
One function of the mediator is to control the process. This frees up the parties and lawyers to focus on outcomes. Mediation avoids lawyers and clients arguing about how to have the conversation – and focus on substance not process.
Letting the mediator control the process includes your client having a pre-meeting with the mediator if the mediator requests. Pre-meetings allow the mediator to develop rapport and goodwill with your client, and to gain an insight into their specific needs and concerns. There may be things best said by your client to the mediator privately – not in the presence of the other parties at the mediation. Pre-meetings result in parties being more focused, engaged and motivated at the mediation session itself. They allow the mediator to customize their usual process to meet the circumstances of the particular parties.