Caucusing in Mediation
Updated February 2013 by Heidi Burgess
Caucuses are meetings that mediators hold with only one side of a conflict. In such closed-door sessions, disputants can clarify their interests and positions, relieve tension and anger, and solidify their strategies, tactics, and goals in a safe environment.
Caucusing is usually facilitated by a mediator and includes the members of one conflict party.
Often in conflicts, one or both parties fail to communicate effectively, have unrealistic expectations, or possess poorly thought out arguments or strategies. Parties]may engage in excessive finger-pointing, use inflammatory rhetoric, or launch personal attacks -- none of which helps resolve the conflict. Or it might be that one side is not as experienced in negotiation as the other, and needs to be helped to make their case effectively, weigh opposing offers, and decide how to engage effectively in the mediation process. Although the more experienced party may see such assistance to the other party as "unfair," very often it is the only way in which the process can be effective--therefore helping both sides, not just the inexperienced side.
For example, caucusing is a means by which mediators can attempt to move the parties beyond roadblocks to consensus. Holding a caucus is analogous to taking two friends who are arguing aside separately and listening to them, trying to reason with them, helping them to think about how they are acting, what they are trying to accomplish, and (when appropriate) how to accomplish it more effectively.
Therefore caucuses are frequently a forum for mediators to help one side become more constructive. When one side is overly angry and expresses that anger too freely, that can increase the anger and intransigence of the other side. A caucus provides a means to vent that anger in a safer venue, relieving the pressure where it will do far less harm. It also might be the case that one side is being unrealistic and doesn't see it. Holding a caucus can allow the mediator to reason with them, ask them probing questions, and perhaps get them to realize errors without embarrassing them in front of their competition.
In mediation, it is important for parties to focus on interests and problems, instead of previously-held positions and personal attacks. Yet in the heat of a conflict, parties may not realize the extent to which they have lost focus on what is important, getting bogged down in the escalating cycle of attack and response (an escalation spiral). By holding caucuses, mediators can get parties to step back and rethink their methods and reasoning. Then they can break the escalation spiral, and proceed with constructive negotiations.
A labor strike has caused a rift between a large corporation and a local union. Mediation begins, but quickly stalls, as each side attacks the other and positions harden. To change the dynamics and prevent further deterioration of the relationships, a mediator might meet with both sides separately. In the labor caucus, the mediator is able to convince the union representatives to speak more constructively and focus on what the workers really want, instead of just badmouthing the management. In the management caucus, the mediator is able to help corporate executives see the human costs of their policies, getting them to loosen their stand against changing employee benefits and working conditions. Improved negotiations follow.
Many mediators use caucuses to try to change the dynamics of a meeting. They can use them to defuse a tense situation or to redirect one or both parties' negotiating strategy. Mediators can even carry proposals back and forth, in a form of "shuttle diplomacy," if exchanging ideas face-to-face doesn't seem to be working very well.
Caucuses do have dangers, however, and for that reason, some mediators seldom, if ever, use them. The primary danger is that one side will wonder what was said in the other caucus. They might worry that the mediator will tell things to the other side that he or she should not (caucus discussions are almost always confidential), or they might worry that the mediator favors one side over another and will help that side more in the caucus than he or she helps the opponent. The only way to avoid such fears is to have everyone meet together all of the time, but that has its problems as well. It is up to the mediator to gauge the productivity of face-to-face meetings, and make an informed judgment about whether caucusing would be an effective tool or not.