It is so easy to fall into set ways of thinking about jobs.  Mediators and those who hire them perhaps tend to think that unless they are resolving disputes in the time-honored way, they are not on the job.  But there are many more uses for a skilled neutral mediator than simply at a “pure” mediation, and there are mediation skills which have a wider application, something under-realized and under-valued by mediators, disputants and their advisers alike.

Joint settlement meetings

Take joint settlement meetings, where there is an inevitable risk of a free-for-all without a neutral chair to suggest how the process should start and develop. A neutral chair with no stake in the outcome is free to attend to questions of balance in participation by each person, and able to dissuade wasteful theatrical walk-outs when progress is still possible.

Well chaired opening joint meetings at formal mediations minimize grandstanding and power plays, restoring and enhancing dialogue, which the dispute has often obstructed.  Skilled representatives are on the whole courteous on such occasions, having learned both that effectiveness comes from speaking directly and respectfully to the opponent decision-maker and team, and that displays of anger, pomposity, dismissiveness and insensitivity are counter-productive.

A good neutral chair will also ensure that the important people present (often not the most vocal or articulate people) are given a proper chance to be heard. In the same way good mediators make it possible for lay parties to be present at key meetings in mediations, often sitting next to them at joint meetings to emphasize their importance, and encouraging them to contribute to exchanges in the meeting.  Lay parties often do so bravely and effectively, so long as the environment feels safe, both legally “without prejudice” and unthreatening.  A skilled neutral chair can make such participation possible and effective.  If the lead is taken by disputatious lawyers, lay parties can easily be excluded or go unheard.

Hiring in a neutral chair

So why not contemplate hiring in a neutral chair for tricky joint settlement meetings, or indeed any sensitive business meeting which needs to go well, even if a full-scale mediation may not be needed?  Perhaps a delicate partners’ or directors’ meeting would benefit from someone to take responsibility for the process off those concerned with content and outcome.

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by Tony Allen

Tony Allen is a Solicitor, Direct Mediator and Senior Consultant for The Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR).