Highlights from Last Month’s Harvard Program on Negotiation’s Advanced Mediation Workshop on Mediating Complex Disputes

By Mylene Chan

The Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation conducted its Advanced Mediation Workshop: Mediating Complex Disputes from July 26-30. Forty-eight participants from diverse mediation practices around the world gathered to attend the July sessions taught by faculty members David Hoffman, Lawrence Susskind, Susan Podziba, Samuel Dinnar, and Audrey Lee.

The program was divided into two parts: (1) a focus on two-party complex mediations with potential court filings, and (2) a focus on multiparty, multi-issue public dispute mediation.  

During the first two days, the faculty addressed the main features of two-party complex mediations, such as ethics, breaking impasses, the use of caucuses versus joint sessions, implicit bias, and the art of co-mediation. Many of the concepts are laid out in “Mediation: A Practice Guide for Mediators, Lawyers, and Other Professionals,” by David A. Hoffman and other contributors (Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education, 2013).

The mediation strategy and process design espoused by this faculty is structured on Roger Fisher’s interest-based model, as outlined in the classic “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In,” by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton (Penguin Books 2011 (originally published in 1981)). The basic principles call for separating people from the problem and shifting from interests from positions. 

Their theory is also heavily influenced by the framework of the core concerns explored in “Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate,” by Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro (Penguin Books 2005). Core concerns–or emotional interests–are human wants that underlie every negotiation. They include autonomy, appreciation, affiliation, status, and role.

Faculty member Audrey Lee explained that exploring disputants’ core concerns allows mediators to shift the focus to disputants’ real interests and to promote better understanding, thus facilitating agreement.

During the first two days, the workshop participants practiced co-mediating in two cases involving commercial contracts, intellectual property, and employment disputes.  Many participants commented that they had never co-mediated, and that they tended to be more driven by positions than interests.  Some added that they struggled to be creative in devising ways to expand the pie, noting that they had to turn off their combative litigator instincts and the urge to render advice and advocate.

The program then transitioned from two-party matters to multiparty, multi-issue public disputes. Lawrence Susskind, a leader in the development of public dispute mediation, introduced these complex public disputes, explaining that their form and substance shift.  The number of parties can range from as few as 30 to beyond 100, many of whom may be unfamiliar with professional facilitation, and with more parties potentially joining over the course of the dispute resolution process.

An additional challenge, Susskind explained, is that the parties may represent stakeholder groups without full empowerment to speak on the groups’ behalf.

Also, the agenda is likely to keep changing because very often parties continue to reshape or argue about it.

Furthermore, scientific and technical uncertainty and disagreement abound.  Examples of these amorphous dispute resolution settings are global treaty negotiations, budgetary negotiations, environmental policy disputes, and public dialogues on issues such as police conduct. A deeper exploration of these issues can be found in “Breaking Robert’s Rules: The New Way to Run Your Meeting, Build Consensus and Get Results,” by Lawrence E. Susskind and Jeffrey L. Cruikshank (Oxford University Press 2006).

Susan Podziba then elaborated on the process she uses in mediating these complex cases. She has worked with the United Nations and individual national governments to resolve intractable disputes with widespread and long-lasting ramifications. She said she begins with an assessment by reading all the publicly available information, followed by discussions with people who have lived through the conflict.

In many cases, parties have not been identified, and therefore, Podziba said she starts by talking to the parties who are obvious, and from those conversations identifying additional parties that should be participating.

Once the first phase is concluded,  Podziba develops the process design, aimed at enabling diverse groups to work together to resolve a complex conflict. The process design typically includes constructing five basic building blocks: (1) the product (the form of agreement such as joint statements or MOUs) that will result from the negotiations; (2) the complementary goals that need to be achieved before agreement can be reached; (3) outreach to and consultations with outside experts; (4) trusted information (that is, information from objective sources that can correct biases); and (5) ground rules and logistics relating to the negotiation session itself.  For more details, see “Civic Fusion: Mediating Polarized Public Disputes,” by Susan L. Podziba (ABA Publishing 2012).

The faculty prepared three complex public policy dispute mediation role-play sessions for the class. The first one concerned the reconstruction of the World Trade Center after 9/11, involving many public parties such as the New York state government, New York City, and the families of the deceased. Many participants who played the role of the families said that they felt the emotions.

After the day concluded, the faculty arranged for a guided group screening of a training video co-produced by CPR, publisher of CPR Speaks, and Harvard PON on the World Trade Center reconstruction. Details are available on Lawrence Susskind’s website, here.

The workshop participants also mediated the ethical dilemmas surrounding water shutoffs in older U.S. cities. Susskind said that his Massachusetts Institute of Technology research team–he is MIT’s Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning–has mapped where U.S. local governments have shut off water supplies. 

After the role-play, many participants inquired about how to gain experience in public policy mediation. Susskind responded that public policy mediators are paid at an hourly rate and discussed the Consensus Building Institute, an international public policy mediation center Susskind founded in 1993.

On the final day of the workshop, Susan Podziba introduced the conflict over the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on sacred lands on Mauna Kea in Hawaii–a massive conflict involving foreign countries and many academic institutions.  After the simulation, many participants reflected on Podziba’s systematic process design and said that they will incorporate such a design into their mediation practice.

David Hoffman, who is credited with bringing collaborative law to the commercial sector via the firm he founded, the Boston Law Collaborative, ended by urging the attendees to consider being peacemakers:

[T]he opportunities to impact out there in the world exist in every one of those cases, when you think about the infinite dimensions of the human heart, and the opportunity we have when we enter the sacred space of people’s conflicts to heal those wounded hearts.  We have a mandate for mediation on a very deep and grand scale.

This Harvard workshop offered veteran mediators an opportunity to have experts critique their trade and to gain exposure to some of the cutting-edge theories and practices of mediation taught at Harvard Law School and its Program on Negotiation. 

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The author, an LLM candidate at Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law’s Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution, in Malibu, Calif., is a 2021 CPR Summer Intern. She participated in the Harvard program detailed in this post.

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Highlights from the June Session of the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation ‘Mediating Disputes’ Training

By Mylene Chan

The Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation conducted a June 7-11 program called Mediating Disputes. This is a recurring course that the program has offered to executives for many years.

About 50 professionals from around the world, including judges, lawyers, business executives, and nonprofit managers attended the sessions taught by Robert Mnookin, Samuel Williston Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, Gary Friedman, of Mill Valley, Calif.’s Mediation Law Offices, and Sausalito, Calif., mediator Dana Curtis.

Mediating Disputes provides training in the non-caucus “Mediation through Understanding” model of mediation that Mnookin, Friedman, and, along with Friedman, co-founder of the Center for Understanding in Conflict, Jack Himmelstein, of New Rochelle, N.Y., have developed and promoted as teachers and practitioners for more than 20 years at the Center of Mediation in Law and the Harvard Negotiation Research Project.

The Understanding Model is a transparent approach in which conflicts are resolved through deepened understanding. This approach eschews the risks of coercion and manipulation potentially present in some other mediation models. 

A distinguishing feature is that all parties work together in a mediation with everyone present. There are no separate meetings and no shuttle diplomacy where the mediator alone has information from both sides. This arrangement eliminates the opportunity for mediators to manipulate information asymmetry. Apart from resolving that ethical dilemma, working together fosters more extensive mutual understanding between the disputants.

The model starts from the foundational belief that disputants should not caucus when conflicts arise and that, in fact, embracing conflicts is often the best opportunity to create value. By staying together throughout the mediation, even when emotions are high, the disputants are forced to vet their underlying interests, allowing the true issues to surface and bring about more nuanced appreciation of each party’s perspective and interest.

Another distinctive characteristic of the Understanding Model is the emphasis on placing ultimate responsibility for whether and how the conflict is resolved on the disputants, not the mediator. It is the parties, rather than the professionals, who ultimately have the best knowledge of what underlies their disputes. Although the intensity of the conflict can obscure their views, the parties hold the key to reaching a resolution of their dispute that best serves them.  When the parties take the lead in resolving the conflict, coercion and manipulation can be eliminated from a mediation, according to the course. 

Mnookin, Friedman, and Curtis presented together during the five-day course. The faculty members engaged the participants in two full mediation stimulations–a personal dispute and a complex business dispute–using the Understanding Model. Each day was dedicated to one of the model’s phases, including contracting, defining the problem and dealing with conflict, understanding law and interests, generating options, and exploring interests and packages.

The faculty demonstrated how each phase should be conducted.  They sent the participants to breakout rooms to roleplay, with guidance and critique, followed by debriefing.  After the day concluded, the three faculty members held office hours for follow-up questions.

The attendees participated in about four hours of simulated mediations using the Understanding Model so they could understand its impact and effect cognitively and viscerally.  

On the final day, the faculty showed a mediation training video produced by the International Institute for Conflict Prevention & Resolution, the host of CPR Speaks, illustrating the caucus model to compare and contrast the different styles. See “Resolution Through Mediation: Solving a Complex International Business Problem” (updated version on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTbj-eHwX-w and available from CPR at https://bit.ly/3cFEkW5).

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Reflecting on the processes reviewed in the Program on Negotiation training sessions, Prof. Robert Mnookin noted, “Many lawyer-mediators primarily rely on separate meetings or caucusing for understandable reasons:

(1) it is more comfortable for them because it avoids their having to deal with heated conflict between the parties;

(2) they believe they will be told things in secret that will allow them to create alternatives that facilitate resolution. Besides, many lawyers (who typically select the mediator) prefer it because it gives them more client control.”

“But in my view,” Mnookin continued, “there is far too much reliance on caucusing. The Understanding Model puts the focus on the parties themselves and provides a much greater opportunity for them to take responsibility for helping shape a resolution that may provide a foundation for repairing a damaged relationship.”

Faculty member and Understanding Model developer Gary Friedman noted in an email,  “The model is premised on the idea that the power of understanding is an underutilized power as opposed to the power of coercion, and has the ability to help people find agreements that are more responsive to what’s personally important to them. Understanding in the form of agreements about how the mediation proceeds as well as the ultimate result give the parties control not just over the outcome, but provides them with participation in designing the process as well.”

Faculty member Dana Curtis, like Robert Mnookin, also had misgivings about relying on caucuses in mediation. She stated, “Unfortunately, the caucus model has eclipsed the Understanding Model, especially in recent years. I believe this has occurred for two reasons. Lawyers prize their role as legal adversaries and protectors at the expense of their role as collaborators and problem-solvers. And mediators, especially retired judges and lawyers brought up on settlement conferences, have not acquired the skills and understandings to enable them to offer parties and lawyers an alternative that can lead to a satisfying and meaningful process and, hopefully, resolution, rather than simply a ‘deal.’”

Concluded Curtis: “We would like to change that!”

Details of the Understanding Model can be found at the links above, and in Beyond Winning: Negotiating to Create Value in Deals and Disputes by Robert H. Mnookin, with Scott R. Peppet and Andrew S. Tulumello (Harvard University/Belknap Press 2004).  A mediation training video illustrating the Understanding Model titled Saving the Last Dance: Mediation Through Understanding, with Robert Mnookin and Jack Himmelstein as narrators and Gary Friedman as mediator, is available at the Harvard Program on Negotiation website at https://bit.ly/35hbdEE.  

And for more on recent views of mediation joint sessions and caucusing, see “Decline of Dialogue? Galton, Love & Weiss on Joint Sessions, Caucuses, and the State of Mediation,” CPR Speaks (June 2) (available at https://bit.ly/3daRBGe).

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The author, an LLM candidate, at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, is a 2021 CPR Summer Intern.

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