One of the central skills of a mediator is the ability to solve problems. And while problem-solving skills may lead to successfully negotiated agreements between disputing parties, an effective mediator also has to get each side to agree to sit down at the bargaining table in the first place. Here is a mediation scenario dealing with just this issue:
Mediation and Conducting Negotiations
My team has a big negotiation with a potential supplier coming up, and we’ve decided to meet at our office. What are the best practices for arranging the physical space to facilitate a productive negotiation? On one hand, we are the customer; on the other hand, they are the “bigger fish.”
In the April 2011 issue of Negotiation, readers received guidance on the classic question “Your place or theirs?”
It sounds as if you’ve resolved that question in favor of your home turf, and now you want to arrange the physical space to promote a productive meditation discussion.
You’ve already taken the first step by identifying the issue. Too often, the physical space for a mediation is an afterthought, and the results can be disastrous.
Consider the recent case of a Fortune 500 board that met to try to resolve a highly divisive issue. As the members entered the boardroom, they were told to pick up their name cards and sit wherever they liked.
Predictably, the group that supported one view sat on one side of the long table, and the group that supported the other view sat on the other side.
Halfway through the all-day meeting, one of the board members noted that the conversation felt like a battle because the two sides had, perhaps unintentionally, assembled on opposite sides of the table.
Far better for the organizer to have set out name cards in advance, deliberately interspersing the two sides to make the discussion feel more like a conversation and less like a pitched battle.
As this example illustrates, planning the physical space of a negotiation should not be left to chance.
When warring factions sit together, counterproductive behavior such as note-passing is common, and even innocuous notes may be interpreted suspiciously by the other side.
Things become even worse when laptops are opened and those on the same side of the table can see what those opposite cannot.
By contrast, if you want to communicate a problem-solving approach, sitting everyone on the same side of the table or (for larger groups) interspersing opposing sides around the table is generally more desirable than sitting across from one another.
To further promote problem-solving, you also need to build in plenty of breaks to allow the two sides to caucus privately, giving them a chance to talk among themselves and refer to confidential information as needed.
In addition, you should make sure that sightlines are clear between the principal mediators on both sides. If the chief negotiators have to constantly look past three or four other people to see each other, this can slow down the process and frustrate the parties.
My final suggestion is quite tactical, but it happens so often that it’s worth flagging. The ergonomic chairs that populate many conference rooms today can, of course, be lowered or raised. I have witnessed numerous cases where a negotiator from the “visiting team” takes a chair, discovers that it is too low or too high, and then spends minutes experimenting with the various levers to get the chair to the proper level.
This is not a good way to start a mediation. Your guests will feel embarrassed for not being able to figure out how to “operate” the chairs. Even worse, they might think you have deliberately engaged in the old “low chair” gambit to try to gain a negotiating advantage. So, before visitors show up, avoid such awkwardness by ensuring that chair heights are set to an appropriate level.
Share your mediation stories with us in the comments below.
Adapted from “Sitting Down at the Table,” first published in the May 2011 issue of Negotiation.