Have you ever had one of those mediation cases where you’ve conducted the disputant’s initial individual sessions, they had progressed well, and the parties had agreed to meet face to face in the hope of resolving their differences? You had even had the opportunity to spend some time preparing them for the joint session, with the intention of maximising the potential of a positive outcome and everything seems just tickety-boo.
So, you make the arrangements for the joint session, find a mutually acceptable date, a suitable venue and are anticipating an extremely productive meeting based on your experience of the initial sessions. You arrive at the venue with your co-mediator on a sunny winters morning about half an hour before the parties are due to attend. You take the necessary steps to make the venue as comfortable as possible for the imminent arrival of the disputants and ready yourself for what you imagine will be a productive meeting.
You discuss the case to plan and prepare for the joint session with your co-mediator, reflect on the individual sessions and how each party was willing to meet. The issues seem straightforward – parking, noise and a breakdown in communication, you feel this is going to be one of those quick meetings – and at that point, things begin to go awry.
The door to the meeting room bursts open and a person you have never seen before walks in and say’s “is this where the mediation meeting is taking place?”. Who is this person and what is he doing here? After some further investigation we establish that the person in the room is the landlord of Sue & Tom, one of the parties due to attend the session. They had requested that he attend the meeting to support them through it. We explain to him that we would need to confirm that his attendance would be acceptable with the other party, Mary and John (John is also there in a support role for his mum, Mary) and if so, his role would be that of emotional support only, he would not be able to take an active role in the meeting itself.
The parties arrive in close succession. We establish that all are agreeable to Sue and Tom’s landlord being present and we begin the meeting with an outline of how the session will run. We then offer the parties the opportunity to introduce themselves. “Who are you?” Tom points his finger at John. John explains that he is Mary’s son and is there to support his mum as his dad is unwell and unable to attend the mediation. Tom looks unhappy and says to John “so what’s your job?”. At this point, I’m wondering where this is going, so I make certain everyone is comfortable to continue; Sue & Tom had been advised that Mary would be bringing someone to support her. The conversation continues, and John explains that he works as a police officer, but reiterates he is attending in the capacity of offering emotional support to his Mother. Tom then responds with “Well if you stay in this meeting me and Sue are leaving”
So, just 10 minutes into the mediation meeting we call a break and hold private sessions with both parties. Tom is annoyed that Mary’s husband isn’t there and is very suspicious of John’s attendance because he is a police officer. We explain that the meeting is confidential, and any agreement is without prejudice, but Tom is adamant that they won’t go back into the meeting if John stays.
We inform John and Mary that Sue and Tom have refused to proceed with the meeting if John remains. After some consideration Sue agrees to continue with the session alone, on the condition that Sue and Tom’s landlord does not take part in the meeting either.
Negotiations complete, we reconvene and begin where we left off, inviting them each in turn to deliver their introductory statement. We summarise what we’ve heard and outline the agenda for discussion.
Parking is a common concern of both parties and so we invite them to outline what they need in order for the situation to be improved. A conversation ensues with claims and counter claims of bad behaviour. Despite our attempts to refocus them both to the present, each party seems set on revisiting past events over and over, despite our attempts at encouraging them to focus on moving forward. With little progress made towards resolving the parking problem. Reflecting on this particular discussion later, it was interesting to recall how they were arguing over what appeared to be a very small space (approximately 20cm) which they said would allow them both to park more easily. It may not seem much, but it appeared to be of the upmost importance to these neighbours and it was not something we could assist them resolving at this meeting.
We parked (excuse the pun) the parking issue and moved to another concern they had mentioned – noise. A conversation developed regarding noise late at night that had been disturbing Sue and Tom’s young children. It became apparent that Mary was unware of the noise. They explored this further, trying to identify what the noise may be, where it was coming from and how often it occurred. After much discussion, they eventually reached an understanding and agreement about the issue.
The meeting drew to a close after a couple of hours and the parties left the meeting with an improved understanding of each other’s concerns and a partial agreement. Was it a satisfactory outcome for them? Probably not, the issue of parking still not having been resolved.
During our de-brief, my co-mediator and I reflected on our conversation before the parties arrived. Had we been too blasé because the individual sessions had seemed ‘text book’? Could we have anticipated Sue and Tom’s objections to John’s presence? Could we have done anything else to support the parties in reaching an agreement on the parking issue? Was it really about parking or was their an underlying issue? While we both agreed that the only people who could have resolved the issues were those involved, it left us thinking about our input as mediators and what we would do differently next time should a similar situation arise. Definitely a case for further reflection and something to take to our next group supervision meeting with our colleagues.