The Third in a Series of Articles
By: Harold Tessendorf
I was first introduced to the practice of co-mediation when I began my conflict resolution work in the late 1980s. The South African communities where I was raised and worked were deeply divided by the systemic discrimination created by colonial and apartheid practices. The deep-rooted nature of that conflict also meant that South Africans did not view one another as being impartial. Political and community tensions spilled over into organizations and businesses. When South Africa’s religious and business leaders realized that their influence was largely limited to their respective identity groups, and that they were considered biased by other key groups, they began to work together to convene negotiation sessions. My mentor and professor, Gavin Bradshaw, referred to them as being “dual mediators”. My colleagues and I adopted this model to successfully mediate a wide range of community and business conflicts through the local peace committees established by South Africa’s National Peace Accord of 1991. We referred to our practice as co-mediation.
Co-mediation is when two or more mediators work as co-equals to assist the parties in conflict reach a negotiated settlement. While co-mediation is sometimes used in divorce and community disputes in the United States, it is seldom used when organizations and businesses are experiencing conflict. The purpose of this article is to shed more light on the practice and benefits of co-mediation.
The practice of co-mediation is useful when the parties to a conflict have reached an impasse. They see no way forward, but neither are they willing to return to the status quo. They are “stuck” and become more entrenched. The tensions between the parties are high; they deeply mistrust one another and outsiders; and, they have little to no prior experience of mediation. They cannot agree on who to select as a mediator.
Co-mediation is also useful when the personal relationship between the negotiators is weak and when they have limited experience in negotiating. Organizations can benefit from co-mediation as well, especially when they may have some in-house mediators who understand the issues and organizational culture, but whom one or more of the parties’ regard as being partial to the other side. Pairing the partial in-house mediator with an external peer will increase the likelihood that the parties will reach a negotiated agreement. Co-mediation is invaluable in community conflicts where there are often numerous and diverse parties. It allows for the mediators to reflect the parties and their communities.
During co-mediation, the parties will see and work with two mediators rather than just one. The co-mediators will sit next to each other, and depending on their style, may alternate roles during the mediation. For example, one of the mediators may take primary responsibility for helping the parties to understand the substantive issues (content) at the heart of their conflict while the other will focus on the negotiation dynamics (process). Co-mediators can also caucus with each other to help move the negotiation process along. Both solo- and co-mediators follow a similar process while assisting the parties with their negotiations. These stages were mentioned in the second article in this series.
There are several benefits associated with co-mediation. It allows the mediators to better manage both the content and the process components of the negotiations. When using co-mediation in organizational conflicts, I find that this practice allows the mediators to better leverage their unique strengths, compensate for one another’s weaknesses and biases, and supplement the other mediator when necessary. Co-mediation gives parties to the conflict leave to identify themselves in the mediation panel. This practice also builds greater accountability into the process as experienced co-mediators serve as a check on each other and through that they build the parties’ confidence in the mediation process.
Another benefit of co-mediation is that it is highly effective in dispelling the three myths of mediation that I addressed in the first article. Co-mediation helps to remove the choice of a neutral, solo mediator from the conflict, thereby allowing the parties to focus on reaching a negotiating agreement which addresses the issues that are at the heart of their conflict. Co-mediators can use their status as insiders with one or more of the parties to help them assess their options and tell them hard truths when this is necessary. They can turn any pleas that the parties make for them to become their advocate into an opportunity to discuss options and offers.
When building a culture of conflict management, organizations should invest in negotiation training so that their members are equipped with the practice and skills of negotiation as well as understanding how mediation can assist them when they are at an impasse. Some of their peers will also have the skills needed to assist them with their negotiations. Organizations should also develop relationships with outside mediators whom they can call on to complement their in-house mediators when necessary.
Co-mediation is highly effective because it addresses the three myths of mediation. It affords the parties with the opportunity to overcome their impasse and reach agreement sooner. This leads them to waste fewer financial, emotional, and physical resources on a prolonged conflict and instead put them to more productive use. Co-mediation also builds a sense of community and helps to strengthen resilience across the communities where businesses, religious and civic organizations and government reside and operate.
Source: Bradshaw, G.J. 2008. Conflict Management for South African Students – Theory and Application. Cape Town: New Voices Publishing.