Caucuses are meetings that mediators hold separately with each side of a dispute. They can be called by the mediator or by one of the parties to work out problems that occur during the mediation process.
Sometimes there are external factors that create changes or new tensions during the mediation. For example, in a public policy mediation, there could be external political or economic events that change the relationship between the negotiating parties.1 A mediator may want to meet with the parties separately to assess the effect of the changed situation on the party and determine whether it makes sense to continue with the mediation as it is, change the focus, or perhaps call it off if the external change makes agreement impossible.
There may also be internal mediation dynamics that require caucus. Sometimes the relationship between the parties has become problematic. A caucus can be called to allow parties to vent intense, built-up emotions without aggravating the other party. Sometimes caucuses are helpful in clarifying misperceptions. They may also be used to change unproductive or negative behavior, or to limit destructive communications between the parties.2
In some cases, a caucus is called so the parties and mediator can clarify or assess the negotiation process that is being used. The caucus could involve the design of new procedures or might be held just to break negative trends that have developed during the process.3 Lastly, caucuses may be called by the mediator or parties to explore important negotiation issues. Sometimes it is necessary for the parties to redefine their interests, clarify their positions, identify new offers, or weigh the other party’s proposals in private.4
Basic Caucus Steps
There is no standard procedure for conducting a caucus, but there are some general steps that a well-conducted caucus includes. So even though every caucus situation will be different, there are some general tips that are often useful:5
• Open the caucus with a review of the confidentiality agreement for the session and then ask an open-ended question to start the conversation. (For example, how do you feel about what’s happening right now?)
• Once participants start talking, use active listening to clarify and summarize their statements.
• Take notes throughout the meeting.
• Test perceptions by asking the party questions about how they view their opponent’s interests and positions.
• Use methods such as confrontation, evaluating strengths and weaknesses of proposals, and focusing on interests, to loosen a party’s fixed positions and explore new options (see option identification).
• Summarize the content of the discussion often and test suggestions for integrative solutions (see integrative bargaining).
• Give the party opportunity for the party to mention other concerns not raised by the mediator.
• Close the caucus with a reminder about confidentiality and a request for any instructions on what to say to the other party.
• Hold a caucus with the other party to keep the process balanced and prevent feelings of distrust or suspicion regarding what went on in the first caucus.
Advantages of Caucuses
There are a few significant advantages to caucuses:
1. Separating the parties allows more open communication between the party in caucus and the mediator.
2. This helps the mediator understand the party’s point of view more fully and keep the process moving forward.
3. Without the presence of the other party, the party in caucus is likely to be less tense, angry, and defensive, and more flexible and creative.
4. Because of the privacy of the arrangement, the party in caucus should feel more comfortable providing information about underlying interests and assumptions as well as suggesting new ideas for solutions.
5. The privacy of the caucus also allows the mediator to interact more intimately with the party in caucus, without seeming biased to the other side.
6. It also lets the mediator say positive things about the other side without pumping up their image of themselves.
7. Lastly, because it is just the mediator and one of the parties, the mediator will be able to directly challenge that party to solve the problem. Without the other party present, the one in caucus will not be able to shift the responsibility.6
• Forewarning/Explanation of Purpose: Whatever the reason for caucusing is, there are a few things mediators must do and consider if they are going to use this technique. At the beginning of the negotiation, mediators should explain what a caucus is and that they may be held at some time during the mediation. The parties should be aware of how caucuses can help. They must also know that either the parties or the mediator may ask for a caucus.7
• Timing: Another aspect to consider is the timing of a private meeting. Caucuses may be held at pretty much any time during negotiations, but the timing of a caucus in the negotiation process is usually associated with certain problems or tasks. For example, caucuses held toward the end of negotiations are usually “designed to break deadlocks [see stalemate], develop or assess proposals, develop a settlement formula, or achieve a psychological settlement.”8
• Confidentiality is another major issue that mediators must consider before they use caucuses. In most cases, the mediator ensures that whatever is said in caucus will be kept confidential once the parties come back together for joint discussion. Some mediators use a system where only information that the parties specifically identify as confidential is kept secret. Still others prefer that no information be kept confidential and that the mediator has the right to use any information he sees as useful to the negotiation.9
• Trust: Mediators must also maintain the trust of the parties. The mediator must be sensitive to the fact that the party left out of the caucus may get suspicious of what went on behind the closed doors. One general rule for making sure trust is maintained is for each side to receive an equal number of caucuses. It is also good if the mediator keeps each caucus to about the same length of time. Sometimes it helps if the waiting party is given a task to do while the mediator talks with the other side.10 Nevertheless, the possibility of generating mistrust or suspicion does prevent some mediators from using caucuses at all.11