Caucus and Connection by Katherine E. Miller

Caucus and Connection?

Recently one of my LinkedIn groups has been having a “discussion” about when to call a caucus.  Many of the participants in that discussion talk about the importance of establishing connection with the parties and they use the caucus for that purpose.  Many commentators use the connection established in caucus to:

  • obtain relevant information
  • flesh out underlying emotions
  • deal with power imbalance
  • detect underlying motivations
  • avoid conflict in the mediation room, and
  • get information about hopes and fears around the mediation process itself.

And the list goes on.

Mediators who use the caucus feel strongly that it is a necessary and important part of the mediation process.  We tend to differ with this approach.

Without saying that a caucus is never appropriate or useful, I would challenge the assumption that caucus is necessary or desirable in the all of the above contexts.

When I start a mediation, I explain to the parties that I work with them together and do not have separate conversations with one party outside the presence of the other.  Instead, I say, I will have separate conversations with each of them in the presence of the other.  Each of them will get the chance to tell me what is important to them and the other will have the opportunity to hear those statements.  I go on to say that I do not expect them to agree with each other and that it may be difficult to hear the other’s perspective.  I say that I have two reasons for working this way.  One is that if I have a separate conversation with each of them outside the presence of the other, the person who ends up with the important information is me but it is the parties who will be making the decisions and so it is crucial for them to have that information as well.  Second is because we are human beings, each party will wonder what I am being told about him or her by the other in their separate meeting and that adds a layer of unnecessary complexity to what is already a complicated situation.

When I explain my reasons for not wanting to caucus, people get it even if it is not what they were expecting.  Not only do they get it, but they recognize that there might be an opportunity in this method.

When people are in conflict, no matter the circumstances, they are often locked in a battle of right and wrong.  A frequent result of this paradigm is that each feels that if the other simply understood where they were coming from and why, s/he would not oppose so vigorously.   The possibility that the mediator could sit in the mediation room and understand the perspective of both parties and tolerate that tension, often can make the conflict less powerful and the grip of what we call the conflict trap weaker.

I find that I am able to develop a strong connection with my mediation clients even in the presence of the other and that their shared connection with me allows them to find a way to connect in the conversation.  Each party feels that I understand their view and what is important to them but not meeting with me alone, inhibits the temptation for each to feel that I am their side against the other.  When this shared connection develops, it is powerful and can help the parties bridge their differences in order to engage in fruitful conversation.