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My Opinion: Good Mediators Lead Best From The Back Of The Room

September 30, 2014

I digress from my usual blog-posted-suggestions about how any attorney can become better at mediation to offer my growing opinion as to how any mediator might also become a better mediator.

I call it “growing” (and opinion), because, I too, am still growing in my “practice” of  ADR and particularly as a mediator and offer this suggestion to others solely in the context of my present mediator’s experience:  “better than yesterday; not as good as tomorrow!” 

And, as always, I will defer to those who have walked these growing steps well ahead of mine.

However, for now,  I believe the very best mediators “lead from the back of the room”.

Or, as many other wise leaders (such as many spouses in successful marriages*) know: leading others where you want them to go without letting them know you are leading them there.   (*Many would suggest the definition of any successful relationship is when one side believes they are solely in charge, when, in reality it is the other partner who is!)

I did not coin the term, “leading from the back of the room”; and I am sure other authors and speakers before me have used  this phrase for a similar subject. Accordingly, I publicly acknowledge whoever first used the term to suggest what I mean: leadership without overt visibility.

It is not easy, but it is learnable.  And, the sooner you or your mediator incorporates the process into your or his or her technique, the more success your mediations will enjoy.

As a litigator, my Type-A personality (and style) was publicly spoken or at least inferred to others, always as:  “Lead or follow, but either way, get out of my way!”  In short, I always believed in myself as a leader.  And, I was never, ever shy about assuming command or using it.

In ADR and as a mediator (likely still Type-A, but learning to do better), I am learning that the better leadership is to help others to lead themselves.  The reality of leadership is that everyone wants to BE the leader, but few are really very good at it.  That is exactly why so many successful leaders are repeatedly sought out to lead again.

And, again, in my opinion and experience, the very best leaders are those whose followers are reasonably unconscious to the leadership.

An all too common complaint about mediators who were former litigators (or worse, with apologies, former judges), is that they usually talk too much, listen too little and, unilaterally decide, too quickly, what is best for others!  These traits are successful in those arenas because they are required in those arenas.  No one wants a litigator who cannot overtly lead.  And, for certain, no one wants a judge who cannot make a decision.

However, such qualities switched to the role of mediators, if true, are actually the antithesis of what mediation is supposed to be aboutSelf-determination by informed compromise with others.

The solution?  Good mediators must learn to lead others to make timely, considered decisions in compromise with others, but also to make others believe it is solely their own decision, simply and timely guided.  Their mediator’s voice, their obvious leadership must be so subliminal as to appear to be coming only “from the back of the room”.

Mediators must use leadership, but yet, must not lead.

Mediators must aggressively and actively involve the parties and their counsel, encourage the discussions, develop the parties own ideas, offer helpful suggestions and all the time direct the band to keep it playing fruitfully.  But they must not even appear to make any decision for the parties.  Each step must be the step conceived by that participant as their own.

Some refer to such mediators, truly, as a “facilitator”.  The good ones merely “allow” the parties to make the proper decision they should make by invisibly leading them to where they really want to go, but only when they cannot find the path themselves.

Obviously, no single mediator technique will meet the needs of every mediation participant. That is precisely why I have suggested that picking a mediator is like picking a jury.  See,  Picking Your Mediator Should Be Like Picking Your Jury,  August 4, 2011  The characteristics you choose in your mediator for any specific mediation will vary.

And, there may also be some generational aspects of the judgment participants make as to the “effectiveness” of their mediator in invisibly leading.  Or the usefulness of such an ability.  Some participants want to feel led and directed to resolution; some simply do not.

But one of the things any good dance partner knows, is that although gentle pressure might be necessary to guide the dance, in the end, it is the partner-dancer that must also dance the dance.  (Another generational thing if you are one of the ones who never learned how to dance with a partner!)

The next time you complete your mediation with a resolution and perhaps believe that your mediator “did little”, you might just want to reconsider. 

Perhaps your mediator performed as General Dwight Eisenhower, the senior commanding general in Europe in World War II, once explained in revealing his concept of any successful leadership of so many other high-ranking leaders:  ” I merely convinced them that they really just wanted to go where I wanted them to go!”

Once any decision “becomes” that person’s own decision, all other leadership leading to that decision becomes, as it should, totally  invisible as “leadership from the back of the room”.

Dan, from St. Petersburg, FL.

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