This Thanksgiving, where do you sit at the (mediation) table?

by | Nov 24, 2020 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

I wrote this piece a couple of years ago before I started my own  mediation firm. Thanksgiving might be a little different this year, but I thought you might like this article with a little editing to bring it current. Let’s appreciate the loved ones and strange ones who are still with us.

At every Thanksgiving gathering of every size there is some jockeying for position at the table. Seat assignments matter. If you are relegated to the “kids’ table” you just have to deal with it. If you are 25 years old and still at the kids table consider the messaging. At the grown-up table there is usually a weird uncle or cousin that you don’t want to sit next to for a variety of reasons that we need not detail here.

At the family Thanksgiving my wife and I attend,  I have started to wonder who the weird uncle might be because we have a lot of brothers, cousins, nieces and nephews.  Then I remembered what they say in poker: if you don’t see any suckers sitting at the table, you’re the sucker. Holy cow, sometimes self-awareness can be disturbing. Enlightenment is not all it’s cracked up to be!

Where you sit at the mediation table says a lot about you

That got me thinking about who sits where at the mediation table. We all know the usual configuration. Mediators at the head of the table, lawyers in the first chair on either side and clients the next seat over. We are mimicking what happens when we are arguing in the judge’s chambers. Counsel up front. Why do we do this? Why aren’t the clients sitting closest to the mediator? Aren’t they the most important people in the room? As a mediator I also try to get comfortable chairs in every room. Hard chairs create hard positions.[1]

When I was working as an attorney in a multi-party case where I was trying to avoid being the target defendant, I would head for the opposite end of the table as if to signal this is not my problem, and I don’t have much to add, verbally (or financially). I let another defendant take first chair in proximity to the mediator. I literally distance myself from the problem.

When is it time to change seats?

Mediators are trained to change seats when they go into private caucus, so they are across the mediation table from the client (not at the head) or alongside. If the table is round, I try to get to the side the client is on. This is to show that they are important and the focus of my concern. It makes them primary, not secondary, which is key because we want the client to own the process and be a decision-maker.

Sometimes if I don’t like the direction the mediation is going I will switch seats. Empathy also works better in close proximity. So does persuasion. I also try to mimic the body position of the speaker.

Some final thoughts for Thanksgiving. Wherever you are sitting while passing the food around at the table,  don’t hog the gravy, don’t pick all of the fried onions off the green bean casserole, don’t take three crescent rolls, and if you get seated next to the weird uncle maybe try to strike a conversation for just a little bit . . . he’ll appreciate it. Now more than at any time I wish you a happy and healthy holiday.

[1]Milestone Court Reporting in Orlando is my go-to venue for in-person mediations. Nice leather chairs, plenty of break-out rooms, a good view of the lake, and and lots of free snacks.

David Henry

David Henry

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