The opening session of mediation will set the stage for the rest of the process. How you approach this first session, and what you do with it, can significantly influence the final results. Here, I’ll share some tips on what to expect and how to make the most of this critical stage.
What Happens in the Opening Session?
Every mediator is different and therefore conducts a slightly different opening session. However, the opening session of mediation will typically include the following:
- Introductory Remarks – First things first; the mediator will make introductory remarks. This is the mediator’s opportunity to give an opening statement, summarize his or her understanding of the issues, and simultaneously demonstrate The mediator should make all parties feel comfortable and safe. The mediator should will also go over the procedures, timelines, rules, and guidelines. As a participant, you should make sure you (or your client if you are an attorney) understands the process and the ground rules for that particular mediation session.
- Statement of the Problem –Next, the parties may have an opportunity to give a brief opening statement. This is not the time to vent, attack, blame, or provide evidence, proof, or documentation. Rather, this is a chance for each side to share their perspective, without interruption. Each party, if provided the chance, should summarize their side of the story, state their claims and arguments, and explain what they believe to be the key problems. This accomplishes several things. First, it gives all parties involved a chance to explain their side of the events. It also gives the mediator an opportunity to identify any gaps in the parties’ understanding of the facts and issues to be resolved and to gauge the emotional state of the parties.
- Q&A –Once the opening statements are made, the mediator will usually ask the parties a few open-ended questions. The mediator will often take this opportunity to clearly state key ideas and summarize each parties’ perspective. This part of the opening session should establish an environment of understanding and set the tone for the mediation.
- Identification of Problems and Goal Setting –Finally, the mediator will usually clearly identify the key problems and issues and help the parties set a specific goal for each. This creates a roadmap, if you will, and divides the case into bite-sized, manageable pieces.
How to Make the Most of Your Opening Session
A successful mediation depends on several factors, but there are a few key skills that will help you make the most of the critical opening session and set the stage for a successful mediation overall.
First, you must use this time to be a good listener. This will likely be your first opportunity to truly hear the events and dispute as told from the other party’ point of view. Hear them out. It’s human nature for people to look at an issue from only their perspective. In order to resolve a dispute, you must be able to put yourself in the other party’s shoes. So, as they tell their story and summarize their version of the issues, try not to make judgments – truly listen to what they are saying. Pay attention to their emotions and the words they choose and try to understand where they’re coming from.
Next, it’s important to stick to the facts. This doesn’t mean that you should hide your emotions. The mediator, and even the other party, needs to understand your emotional state and how you’re feeling about the issues. At the same time, it will be advantageous for you to control those emotions and not let them dictate your words or distort your perspective. In other words, when your emotions take over, it often results in the exaggeration of events or unintended twisting of facts. Not only will this make the other party more resentful, but it will also make it more difficult for the mediator to establish the truth. Tell your side of the story, but be as accurate and factual about it as possible.
Finally, it’s important to be flexible at this stage. If you approach mediation with an unwavering idea of what should happen, you’re likely to be disappointed. Mediation is about finding reasonable solutions for everyone involved. This requires a certain level of cooperation and compromise.