Early Caucus: Dealing with Stress in Mediation

Traditional facilitative mediation has long been structured as: 1) Joint session, 2) Caucus, 3) Joint session (with additional rounds as necessary).

This structure is often found in community mediation settings and was once common in commercial mediation. In recent years, commercial mediation often skips the opening joint session and frequently is conducted entirely in caucus. This change is driven, in part, by advocates’ fear of strong emotions. Dropping the initial joint session is detrimental to the process because parties lose the opportunity to directly see and hear the impact of the conflict on their counterparts.

The danger of strong emotion in the initial joint session can be greatly reduced by starting in a short 5-10 minute caucus sessions between the mediator and each side. These early caucus sessions:

  1. Give mediators an opportunity to meet the parties and attorneys and start building rapport;
  2. Give parties an opportunity to hear about the process and ask questions about the process at the moment when they are most open to the topic; and
  3. Give mediators an opportunity to set a calm mood and assess the emotional tone of the parties as they prepare to enter the joint session.

Why does this early caucus help? Parties arriving at a mediation session are subject to many triggers that initiate the physiologic stress response. This hormonal response changes the mind and body of humans just as it has in all animals for hundreds of millions of years. It is preparation for the fight, flight or freeze response to a threat. In particular, the body produces the hormone cortisol that helps us focus and concentrate. However, when we are exposed to repeated stress triggers the cortisol builds up and at high levels it subverts our abilities to process information, consider other points of view, and make decisions. High levels of cortisol also make us perceive others to be angrier than they actually are.

Early caucus gives parties time to feel more comfortable in the setting and with the mediator before encountering their advisory. Parties learn what is about to take place and gain a sense of control over the situation. They absorb the calm atmosphere set by the mediator. All of these experiences help parties deal with the stress triggers that will occur in joint session and reduce the stress hormone build-up that can be so detrimental to the mediation process.

Early caucus helps community mediation run more smoothly and can be offered as a way to encourage commercial mediation advocates to agree to a joint session.

-Jill Tanz

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