Isn’t it interesting how people tend to ‘own’ seats even in public places? Very often, people choose the same sitting area when they visit a restaurant, cinema, attend a meeting or even at a place of worship. Although children would easily eject each other from what they consider to be ‘their’ seats, adults tend to use non-verbal cues to show their displeasure when they find an occupant in their seat.
The sitting arrangement at the first mediation session is therefore very important. The distance between the parties should help them feel connected yet non-intrusive into personal spaces, hence making it conducive for discussions to occur. Similarly, the mediator’s seat should be placed at a position that reinforces their neutral role in the discussions.
The mediator can ensure that the sitting arrangement is appropriate by checking the mediation room before the parties arrive and then receiving the parties as they enter the room and ushering them to their seats. This further reduces the awkwardness a party may face in deciding where to sit and saves them from possible embarrassment of shifting sitting positions. Normally, if the same room is used for subsequent sessions, the parties are highly likely to take the same seats.
In some cases, a room that the parties have previously been using may not be available. It remains the responsibility of the mediator to ensure that the sitting protocol is conducive for respectful discussions. Depending on the progress of the mediation talks, the mediator could allow the parties to choose their own seats rather than show them a particular seat. This is because as the discussions progress and the possibility of reaching an agreement becomes more apparent, sometimes the parties get more comfortable with each other and often erase the invisible boundaries that existed between them.
During one of my mediation sessions, we needed to use a different room for our third session. As the parties picked their seats, one said to the other, “This is great, it looks like we are nearing an agreement”, as they took their seats right next to each other. That led to a round of hearty laughter as each party used their hand to point out a seat for me. The sitting arrangement and the laughter helped set a suitable mood for the discussions.
Mediators ought to be aware of the dynamics introduced by sitting arrangements and use those nuances to enhance the mediation process.
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