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Conscious and Unconscious Thinking in Mediators

Jennifer Shack, July 6th, 2017

The mediation field now has more information in our push to unlock the black box of mediation. A recent study by James Wall and Kenneth Kressl examined the conscious and unconscious thought processes of ten civil case mediators. Their findings do more to confirm what many have long assumed, rather than provide new insights, but they are no less informative because of that. As they discuss in “Mediator Thinking in Civil Cases” (Conflict Resolution Quarterly, Spring 2017), the mediators focused on settlement as well as client satisfaction and obtaining repeat business. Unconsciously, they were biased against emotions being brought into the mediation and saw the dispute as one in which the parties would have to compromise on monetary value.

The study involved 20 observations, two for each of the ten mediators. Nine of the mediators were male; nine were white. When setting up the study, Wall and Kressl made three assumptions:

  • Mediators have goals and pursue them.
  • Mediator thinking operates on two levels – unconscious (system 1) and conscious (system 2). System 1 thinking is emotional and based on personal biases, while system 2 thinking is rational.
  • Mediators engage in mental mapping when adopting goals and pursuing them. Mental mapping involves figuring out what to do and at what point in the mediation in order to achieve their goals.

They used these assumptions to frame their observations. Prior to each mediation, the observer met with the mediator for about 30 minutes and asked, “What are you thinking?” The observer then asked the same question after introductions and after the joint opening session. Once the parties were separated (in each mediation, there was only one joint session), the observer asked the mediator what he was thinking as they walked from one caucus room to the other. After mediation, the observer interviewed the mediator for about 45 minutes.

Conscious Thinking

On the conscious level, Wall and Kressl found that the mediators all had two outcome goals, which they pursued in mediation. These were achieving a settlement and having the clients leave satisfied. Additionally, most of the mediators were interested in obtaining repeat business. The mediators’ operational goals were also universal: lower the clients’ aspirations, keep parties flexible and maintain client control. Interestingly, they all looked to the attorneys to control their clients.

Most of the mediators created mental maps of how they would achieve their goals, although the level of mental mapping varied greatly among them. Mental mapping in general starts with pre-planning – getting relevant information before the mediation starts in order to get an idea of where the case might settle. During mediation, the mediators might take verbal and non-verbal cues into consideration while continuously determining when and how settlement will be achieved, and at what dollar amount. For me, the most surprising finding of the study was that some experienced mediators engage very little in mental mapping. The common factor for the three mediators in the study who used only slight mental mapping was their focus on their own role and actions rather than on those of the parties.

Wall and Kressl found that as part of their mental mapping, the mediators considered how much to press the parties and what the pace of the mediation should be. On both factors, there was considerable variation between mediators. Pressing, defined in the study as “pointing out the weaknesses in the client’s case; noting the strengths of the opponent’s case; and emphasizing the risks, pain, uncertainty, and costs of trial” was used very little by three of the mediators and three used it extensively as a method of control, dominance and pace-quickening.

Unconscious Thinking

Wall and Kressl divided unconscious thinking between prior to mediation and during mediation. Prior to mediation, mediators unconsciously frame the negotiation situation as distributive. That is, they believe that mediation is about getting the parties to make monetary concessions in order to reach agreement. They also believed that mediation should be low conflict and that any mediated settlement was better than trial. The mediators also saw emotions as problematic and to be avoided in mediation.

During mediation, the mediators made quick judgments about the parties and the probability of settlement. Universally, this judgment was negative for insurance adjusters (although the adjuster was only present in five cases). Also noted was that the mediators were “creatures of habit”.  All but one conducted the mediation the same no matter the situation. (This was confirmed for five of the mediators, who had been observed for multiple mediations a decade before.) Wall and Kressl noted that the mediators had on average a 70% settlement rate, which might have led the mediators to confirm that their mediation style worked well.

Although the study only included ten mediators, Wall and Kressl saw patterns in their approach to mediation, leading them to put the mediators into three distinct groups:

  • Reflective Persuaders: these were high mental mappers who were moderate on pressing and extracting offers.
  • Pressers: these were high on pressing and extracting offers, moderate on what the pace of mediation should be and moderate on mental mapping.
  • Laissez-faires: these were low on pressing and extracting offers, moderate on repeat business and having pleased clients and moderate on the pace of mediation. They made mental maps but were hands off.

This study suffers from a small and homogeneous sample, so it is not readily generalized to the general population of mediators.  Another issue is that the cases were very heterogeneous; differences in case types, dollar amounts and representation may have had an impact on how mediators approached their cases. Nonetheless, the study is significant in that it provides insights into mediators’ unconscious biases. This information can be used to uncover the influence of unconscious thinking on mediator behavior and the path that mediation takes.

Getting the Story Right with Data to Make the Right Decisions

Jennifer Shack, October 20th, 2016

I’m a data geek. I love poring over data and running analyses to see what story unfolds. On the national level, data can tell us the story of our rise as an industrial power and how that changed how people lived and worked. On a local level, it can tell the story of how the closing of a factory affects the fabric of a community and the institutions that bind it. For foreclosure mediation programs, the data can tell the story of how homeowners are affected by changes to the program. Thus, I was eager to find out how changes to the court rules in the 19th Judicial Circuit of Illinois at the beginning of this year would play out. What story would the data tell? (more…)

Maryland Research Offers Insight into What Works (And What Doesn’t) in the Mediation Room

Jennifer Shack, June 29th, 2016

I had the honor of presenting at the Maryland Judiciary’s ADR Research Symposium a couple of weeks ago. The purpose of the symposium was to inform judges and court personnel of the results of a six-year research project examining ADR programs and processes. It reminded me of just how well Maryland has planned and implemented its ADR system. Because it serves as a model, I’d like to provide a little background about this before discussing the research. (more…)

Model Mediation Surveys Are Now Available

Jennifer Shack, April 6th, 2016

I’m so happy to introduce the Model Surveys, a toolkit that enables court-connected mediation programs to obtain reliable data. The toolkit includes post-mediation surveys for parties, attorneys and mediators, as well as a mediator report. The surveys are all annotated, with explanations for the rationale for each question and discussion of the wording. The toolkit is rounded out with advice on how to use and modify the surveys.

The whole idea behind the project is that courts and their associated programs often don’t have the necessary resources to obtain good information about program functioning. In RSI’s experience, the courts’ biggest need was for well-designed participant surveys and set out to develop them in collaboration with the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution and with the help of a fantastic group of nationally-known experts in ADR research and program administration. (more…)

Foreclosure Mediation Still Going Strong in Illinois

Jennifer Shack, March 4th, 2016

In the last two years, the six programs currently funded by the Office of the Illinois Attorney General have helped 476 homeowners save their homes. Almost 100 more relinquished their homes voluntarily, allowing them to make a fresh start. Combined, this means that the programs helped about 1/3 of participating homeowners – and their communities – to avoid the negative consequences of foreclosure. (more…)