There seems to be a constant debate between mediators, litigators and users of the mediation process as to the benefits of a joint session.  Some people insist that a joint session is a must, while others claim that it is a waste. The answer to the question of joint sessions also seems to differ widely from geographical regions. Recently, however, I discovered research on how meetings affect decision-making might shed some light on whether to do a joint session and how it should be done if it is used.

Researchers Garold Stasser and William Titus, in  the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that in a meeting to determine qualified candidates for a position, the discussion process almost never led to a cohesive joining of thoughts to identify the right candidate.  Instead, the groups primarily chose the candidate that had the highest votes at the beginning of the meeting.

Although, in theory, the meeting was a chance to exchange ideas and make arguments, the researchers reported that “group members’ pre and post-discussion recall of candidate attributes indicated that discussion tended to perpetuate, not to correct, members’ distorted pictures of the candidates.” The more people heard other points of view, the more people were absolutely sure that those points of view were wrong and their views were right. They talked, and they talked, and no changes — and certainly no improvements — were made.  (See, Why Meetings Are The Worst Possible Way To Get Things Done)

According to the researchers, “making a decision as part of a group leads to increases in confidence that are not mirrored in accuracy.” In essence, people believe their own message over the information being given to them. More talk and information didn’t change their pre-existing view.  In other words, talking actually made the decision less collaborative and the more a person heard about the other viewpoint, the more that person fervently believed that his or her decision/vote was the only choice.

Therefore based upon this research, the better decision would be to prevent people from establishing their “votes” early on and instead; allow a brief discussion on the topic bringing forth the relevant point so a decision can be made.  How can this be applied to the mediation context?

First, we should consider whether a joint session at the beginning – or even at all- is really necessary. Often, the lawyers and their clients are at their highest level of agitation early in the process.  The client may have expectations as to what they want to occur.  The lawyer may feel a sense of having to put on a show for his or her client.  At this time, it does not appear that the parties are interested in hearing the other side’s viewpoints, much less consider them.  Indeed, even if the meeting takes place and an extended discussion occurs, as noted above, the information may not have the desired effect.  Instead, it could further entrench the other sides’ view and have given away all of your pieces of evidence or negotiating chips early on.

Second, if you consider a joint session, maybe it is only for the purposes of establishing human relations; introducing names to faces, and perhaps giving guidelines for the process.

Third, if the mediator has credibility and material information is being conveyed, then the mediator should be the one to make sure that the information is reiterated to the other side.

Fourth, consider having a joint session later — if you truly need one.  Have a stated, specific goal.  I find that having a specific problem to work on for a joint session is far better than having a general all purpose meeting.

Finally, remember that most people don’t want to hear the other side.  They just want to confirm that their own views are correct.