Innumerable scholarly articles consider the impact of light, colour and design on productivity in office environments. When I began to think about the design of my own mediation suite, I searched high and low for information about how to optimise the physical environment to enhance the chances of a successful negotiation.

In conversation with experienced mediators, there is much anecdotal advice about the effect of environment on the parties and the negotiation. For example, one mediator I know ensures that there are healthy snacks available throughout the mediation, on the basis that hungry people are grumpier and less flexible.  Another mediator I know believes in the mood enhancing power of chocolate.

Almost without exception mediators can tell horror stories about the types of environment they do not regard as optimal. These may include aspects such as:

  • Lack of privacy
  • Lack of natural light
  • Uncomfortable furniture
  • Rooms that are too cold or too hot

It is not that mediations cannot succeed in uncomfortable rooms with bad lighting, but there is a generally accepted belief that everyone, including the mediator, will find their work more difficult than it might otherwise be. Now with the benefit of a clean slate I faced the daunting task of creating a space, which would assist parties – certainly not hamper them – from discussing their issues and if possible reaching resolution.

The What

As a first step, I wanted to analyse what mediators are trying to accomplish? Mediators often speak of their goal as a ‘durable solution’. This does not mean a solution at any price or a solution that represents justice to all parties. In plain English, it means a solution that will endure, a solution based on reality and not fantasy. While this may not sound like the loftiest of goals especially for novice lawyers who seek justice, it means a great deal to mediators. Having acted as a litigation lawyer and also as a client, I know it means a lot to clients to achieve a resolution. If, in addition, that resolution is realistic and sustainable then it can be of immeasurable benefit.

So in order to create this durable solution, what should I be trying to stimulate in the parties?  Often people in disputes are fuelled by anger and frustration. I wanted to create an environment, which would provide a sense of calm and space. I wanted to create an atmosphere where focus and concentration would be encouraged.

Mediation requires both perseverance and creativity, so I also needed an environment, which could provide energy and stimulation. However, people in disputes can be highly reactive, so I needed to ensure that there was not too much stimulation.

From personal experience, I have also seen the benefits of reminding people that there is an outside world during a mediation.  Rather than creating a sequestered environment where the walls of the meeting room define the limits of perception and reality, I knew I wanted to create a space where the existence of a world outside would be a subtle visual aid to providing perspective.

The How

A key decision for me was to provide spaces, which did not resemble the typical office environment. In general, spaces used for mediation are variations on an office theme.  Through their use of industrial design they communicate work but not support or encouragement. Instead of putting parties into defensive postures in a formal space, I was keen to design an informal and supportive mediation suite.

In a physical environment there are certain changes, which can have a significant impact on the atmosphere created by a place. I knew that the colours used in the space would play a large part in creating the appropriate mood.  I needed to include colours, which would both calm frustrations and help to stimulate options. By selecting a predominant wall colour, which encourages relaxation and focus, the main sense is of quiet and calmness. By adding accent colours through art and accessories, it is possible to provide stimulation for creativity.

As humans, we instinctively feel the benefit that natural light has on mood and perceptions.  I knew that ensuring the spaces had access to natural light would be important.  In a perfect world mediations could be conducted in a beautiful and natural environment.  In my own experience, failed generator had pushed my mediation onto a lawn outside the courthouse. I have seen the impact of trees, sunlight and even a passing dog on the attitudes of parties. However, in an urban setting this can be challenging.  The benefits of a green view may not be readily available in the city, but an aspect that shows a vibrant street can help to remind parties of the existence of the bustle of life outside the dispute.

Sometimes it is what you do not include that is the important decision. A lack of furniture, such as a meeting table, can also signal to the parties that a room is for informal discussions. Ensuring a different feel between the caucus rooms and the joint session room can communicate to the parties quickly and subliminally that one room at least is a haven for them.

The choice of furniture in the room can also be used positively to create a sense of comfort and ease.  For example, the shape of the meeting table can establish the authority of the person seated at the head of the table.  Or alternatively, a table can provide each participant with a ‘seat at the table’ and a stake in the discussions.

In addition, through the use of lighting, art and music the best possible atmosphere for a collaborative process can be structured.  The decisions can seem endless and range from overhead lighting, to using jugs for communal water. It has been a fascinating process of considering what research is available and what decisions felt right to me as a mediator.  As with everything the proof will be in the pudding and only as parties use the mediation suite for mediations and negotiations will I see whether the deliberate choices I have made will enhance the experience of negotiating for all of the parties.

To see what decisions I made please visit the mediation suite at www.conflictchange.com.

By Sala Sihombing

Sala Sihombing originally qualified as a solicitor in the United Kingdom and Hong Kong. After 14 years in banking, she has shifted gears, recently completing a Masters in Law from the Straus Institute at the Pepperdine University School of Law. www.conflictchange.com