Mediation Tips: Small Group Theory and Mediation

One of the reasons why I enjoy mediation as a profession is that it is a very social process. Going in, nobody on the planet knows for sure if the matter is going to be resolved. The process is dynamic and not subject to being tightly controlled. We get to know the parties as people, hear what they have to say, and respond. At a magic point during most mediations, it becomes intuitively clear that the matter will resolve, it’s only a matter of putting together the details. 

One of the goals of mediation is to invite the parties into the arena of collaboration. There are other ways cases can be settled that are not collaborative. One party can simply capitulate or surrender. This can happen for a number of different reasons, such as reaction to the perceived power of the other party; or surrender due to lack of resolve or preparation; reaction to apparently overwhelming hostility; a personality or atmosphere of fear or anxiety.

Collaboration suggests a mutual building of something new, whereas the traditional notion of “compromise” suggests that both sides give something up, with the result that a successful resolution is measured by both sides being equally unhappy or disappointed. With “compromise,” mediation becomes a crude, blunt instrument, seeking merely to establish the opening positions of the parties, so they can be induced to meet in the middle. Another non-collaborative approach is simply to lay the case out for the mediator, who is perceived as a source of wisdom and experience, and in effect let the mediator tell the parties what they should do, what would be “fair.” 

We can think of a mediation process as involving various social “networks” on several levels. The “network” associated with a party might be an individual plaintiff, a spouse or trusted family member, and their lawyer. We might think of a somewhat larger relevant “network” as including the other party, their lawyer, and the mediator. If the two parties or sides have been involved in prior negotiations, there’s the possibility that at the outset of the mediation the two sets of parties could comprise an informal “network,” and the mediator might be sensed as an outsider. Sometimes a mediator can be effective as an outsider, as being a relatively objective, new set of eyes who can test faulty assumptions and lead the parties to re-think old narratives. But at other times, the mediator is such an outsider as to be irrelevant to the process, and provides no help at all. 

Social network and small group theories, supported by recent work in neuroscience, are currently moving into areas of study that are relevant to the social science of mediation, and helps predict when individuals are likely to agree to a cooperative approach to problem-solving. For example, recent studies have confirmed a notion that may seem obvious but has not been rigorously studied, that individuals differ in their social network experience. Where the parties differ in how they react to power, or have different perceptions of the sources of power, they will relate differently to the centers of power (known as “keystone” individuals) within and outside their own group of origin. They will relate differently to their “connections.” 

These theories also support the view that connections that are strong in one context may be strong in others. For example, where the opposing parties have a strong positive relationship bond (e.g., co-employees who have a history of satisfying work relations, except for the present dispute), that positive history can be invoked to move into a basis for productive discussion. 

Within a particular network, individuals may differ in their importance. That is, some individuals may wield a disproportionate effect in decision-making, communication of information, functions, dynamics or outcomes. Such individuals are referred to as “keystone” individuals. During the course of a mediation it may be important to identify such individuals as the key to decision-making. 

It’s fascinating that in studies of non-human (primate) group behavior, the phenomenon of “conflict mediation” has been identified even within animal social populations. For example, in primate groups, where there are sub-groups with strong power competition, there appears to be an implicit cost-benefit behavior that falls in the category of “policing,” that is, there are individuals, who are not otherwise keystone or power-source individuals, who “mediate” disputes between power-nodes toward resolution rather than conflict which would threaten the entire population. When these conflict mediator-individuals are removed experimentally, the population breaks down into smaller groups as though under perceived threat, and communication among the smaller groups lessens. In other words, even in the world of our close animal relatives, there are individuals that perform the function of mediating disputes, with the result that the effective functioning (efficacy) of the entire population is improved. The functioning of the entire population is stabilized within its ecological niche (e.g., is more effective in predator inspection and cooperative vigilance). 

Neuroscience and social network theories support the very important insight that the critical factor that promotes cooperation rather than conflict in social dynamics is the identification of “kinship.” Defined narrowly, “kinship” means blood relations between individuals; it can be expanded conceptually in discussions of “clan” behavior. From the time of the caves, when two strangers would meet, there would be an automatic evaluation of each other, along the lines of identifying kin or stranger.  These automatic type evaluations continue to be unconscious factors in conflict resolution today, especially in multicultural contexts. It’s important to recognize how deeply-rooted these forces are, and how they can be acting as powerful influences even though unconscious. It’s important to watch reactions as more important than responses of individuals in such situations, observing clues where actions speak stronger than words. 

Where people are involved, social dynamics don’t come neatly packaged. Relations and communications tend to be messy. A foundational understanding of neuroscience and social network theory, especially in relation to small group dynamics, is essential for success.