I recently conducted a multi-party facilitation and am seeking feedback from other conflict management professionals and attorneys who have facilitated similar situations. I will provide some background about the issue, discuss my perspective on how it went,  and then conclude with a few questions to jump start a discussion.

About two weeks ago I facilitated a dispute regarding several intertwined issues that included property improvement, neighborhood beautification, economic development, and landlord-tenant responsibilities. The meeting involved 10 different people including city alderman and inspectors, property owners, current tenants, (tentative) future tenants, a representative from a neighborhood association, and real estate agents. One attorney was also present but he was not providing counsel. The facilitation lasted 150 minutes and concluded with several agreements, deadlines, and a timeline for action. The parties appeared to be satisfied and have begun acting on their agreements.

I began the facilitation by going over a few rules: one person talks at a time, be respectful of others, be honest, and ask questions when you don’t understand something. After the brief introduction, I had the parties go around the table and tell who they are, why they are here, and what they want to get out of the meeting…which naturally led to a discussion.

My speaking role was minimal and could be described as a Crossing Guard that guided the flow of conversation with as little intervention as possible. That is, I paid attention to who wanted to talk, I read people’s nonverbal cues, I reminded people of the rules, and I generally helped keep the conversation moving forward rather than backwards. At times I felt unneeded as the participants freely talked to one another, but after reflection I understand that my presence — even if it made me feel unnecessary — created a safe and structured environment for the participants to negotiate and listen in a non-defensive manner.

The only (conscious) strategic aspect of my role was trying to identify John Gottman’s Four Horseman of the Apocalypse — which are communication behaviors that statistically reduce the success of a relationship.  The four negative behaviors that lead to failed relationships are DefensivenessStonewallingContempt, and Criticism (but I also look for Blaming and Sarcasm). When one of these behaviors was communicated to the group, I jumped in and reframed the statements.

Outside of the introduction, I talked very little during the process but it was a success from the participant’s point of view. I learned that the mediator’s “presence” can take on multiple forms and does not have to be relegated to verbal communication. Although I personally felt that I was not that big of help during the process, several participants thanked me for “making this happen” and “leading a productive conversation.” Thus, even though I wanted to put myself in the middle of the interaction and more thoroughly control the conversation, by giving away control (and establishing clear rules and roles) I effectively fulfilled my role as a facilitator. Although I was verbally absent for much of the facilitation, my physical and nonverbal presence were reaffirming to the participants. For future multi-party sessions, I will remember that being “present” occurs in more ways than simply talking.

Discussion Questions

  1. What facilitation styles have proven useful in multi-party mediations?
  2. From a mediator’s perspective, what are deal breakers during multi-party sessions?
  3. How does assigning “homework” (e.g., tasks to be completed outside the session) factor into successful facilitation sessions?

I look forward to your thoughts, questions, and comments.