Mediation is a method of dispute resolution that relies on an impartial third-party decision-maker, known as a mediator, to settle a dispute. Mediation is distinguished by its focus on solutions. Instead of focusing on discoveries, testimonies, and expert witnesses to assess what has happened in the past, it is future-oriented. Mediators focus on discovering ways to solve the dispute in a way that will appease both parties.
While requirements vary by state, a mediator is someone who has been trained in conflict resolution, though often, he or she does not have any expertise in the subject matter that is being disputed. Mediation is another form of alternative dispute resolution. It is often used in attempts to resolve a dispute because it can help disagreeing parties avoid the time-consuming and expensive procedures involved in court litigation.
Courts will often recommend that a plaintiff, or the party initiating a lawsuit, and a defendant, or the party that is accused of wrongdoing, attempt mediation before proceeding to trial. This recommendation is especially true for issues that are filed in small claims courts, where judges attempt to streamline dispute resolution. Not all mediators are associated with public court systems. There are many agency-connected and private mediation services that disputing parties can hire to help them potentially resolve their dispute. The American Bar Association suggests that, in addition to training courses, one of the best ways to start a private mediation business is to volunteer as a mediator. Research has shown that experience is an important factor for mediators who are seeking to cultivate sensitivity and hone their conflict resolution skills.
Benefits of mediation
- Confidentiality. Since court proceedings become a matter of public record, it can be advantageous to use mediation to preserve anonymity. This aspect can be especially important when dealing with sensitive matters, where one or both parties feel it is best to keep the situation private.
- Creativity. Mediators are trained to find ways to resolve disputes and may apply outside-the-box thinking to suggest a resolution that the parties had not considered. Since disagreeing parties can be feeling emotionally contentious toward one another, they may not be able to consider other solutions. In addition, a skilled mediator may be able to recognize cultural differences between the parties that are influencing the parties’ ability to reach a compromise, and thus leverage this awareness to create a novel solution.
- Control. When a case goes to trial, both parties give up a certain degree of control over the outcome. A judge may come up with a solution to which neither party is in favor. In contrast, mediation gives the disputing parties opportunities to find common ground on their own terms, before relinquishing control to outside forces.
Steps of mediation
Mediation, while not being as formal as a court trial, involves the following six steps:
- Mediator’s Opening Statement: During the opening statement, the mediator introduces himself or herself and explains the goals of mediation.
- Opening Statements of Plaintiff and Defendant: Both parties are given the opportunity to speak, without interruption. During this opening statement, both parties are afforded the opportunity to describe the nature of the dispute and their desired solution.
- Joint Discussion: The mediator will try to get the two disagreeing parties to speak to one another and will guide the discussion toward a mutually amicable solution. This part of the mediation process usually identifies which issues need to be resolved and explores ways to address the issues.
- Private Caucus: During this stage, each party has the ability to meet and speak privately with the mediator. Typically, the mediator will use this time to learn more about what is most important to each party and to brainstorm ways to find a resolution. The mediator may ask the parties to try to put aside their emotional responses and resentments to work toward an agreement.
- Joint Negotiation: After the private caucuses, the parties are joined again in the same room, and the mediator presents any newly discovered insight to guide them toward an agreement.
- Closure: During this final stage, an agreement is reached, or it is determined that the parties cannot agree. Either way, the mediator will review the positions of each party and ask them if they would like to meet again or explore escalating options, such as moving the dispute to court.
Both the disputants themselves, and those who attempt to facilitate dispute resolutions, i.e., mediators and attorneys, must navigate a myriad of ethical issues, such as deciding whether they should tell the entire truth or only offer a partial disclosure. This conflict has long roots in history and has often been considered in terms of consequentialist and deontological ethical theories. Consequentialist ethics, sometimes known as situational ethics, is a way of looking at difficult decisions by considering their implications. Someone who follows consequentialist ethics in mediation or arbitration would consider the impact of his or her decision on the parties in light of their unique circumstances. In contrast, deontologist ethics bases its decision on whether the action itself is right or wrong, regardless of its consequences.
Imagine a situation in which a professional accountant holds a consequentialist ethical viewpoint and believes that there are certain scenarios in which the disclosure of only part of the truth is a commendable course of action. For example, if an accountant is interviewed regarding how the company handled a certain transaction in its retirement account, he might choose to withhold certain information because he is afraid it will harm the retirees’ ability to retain the full benefits of their pensions. In this case, the accountant is utilizing “the ends justify the means” logic because he feels that the omission of truth will result in more benefit than its revelation. A mediator or arbitrator who also follows a consequentialist viewpoint would consider the accountant’s motivation and the circumstances, in addition to his or her actions.
Ethical situations like these are not only part of dispute mediation in business law scenarios, but also happen in daily life. Consider the case of a parent who is on his way home from work when he receives a call from the babysitter, telling him that his child’s forehead feels hot and that she is complaining of not feeling well. Sitting in traffic, the parent remembers that he does not know the whereabouts of the digital thermometer, so he decides to stop and purchase one. The parking lot at the store is extremely busy, so the parent decides to park in a handicapped spot, even though he does not have any mobility challenges. These types of situations have been addressed by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, who spoke of the categorical imperative, which he defined as, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” In other words, one’s action should be considered in light of what would happen if everyone were to engage in the same action. While it might not seem like a harmful infraction, if everyone were to do it, then it would cause a true inconvenience and possible suffering for mobility-impaired individuals, for whom those spaces were designated. A deontological ethical viewpoint would determine that it is always wrong to park in the handicapped space, regardless of the situation. In real life, it is very difficult to adopt a 100% deontological viewpoint for dispute resolution. Often, the reason the dispute has arisen in the first place is because of some ambiguity inherent in the situation. In these cases, mediators must apply their best judgment to help the disagreeing parties see one another’s viewpoints and to guide them toward a mutually amicable solution.
- Business Law I Essentials. OpenStax. https://openstax.org/books/business-law-i-essentials/pages/1-introduction
- Steps of Mediation. Explained by nolo.com