Whichever kind of mediation approach a mediator takes and whatever their background, the mediator’s first task is to explain to the parties involved how the mediation process will work and, crucially, set the ground rules for the session. Ground rules ensure that all parties are on the same page from the start of the mediation, help establish positive and productive channels of communication, and safeguard all parties in the mediation process.
Almost every type of dispute management approach relies on a set of ground rules to ensure that the process runs fairly and that disputing parties are treated equally. With all participants agreeing to a set of principles up front, this allows the mediator to refer back to the agreed rules if a dispute gets heated or the mediator feels the ground rules are not being adhered to for any reason. It can also help make the mediation more time efficient by saving lengthy procedural debate throughout the session.
What the actual ground rules consist of will vary depending on the type of mediation, but may include agreement on behaviour, procedure, communication and even the role of the mediator. Behavioural ground rules might involve agreement on listening respectfully, not interrupting when another party is speaking, not using derogatory language, being on time for meetings and so on. All of this helps to build trust and aims to encourage parties to feel comfortable and secure in expressing their opinions and having a voice. Ground rules applying to process or procedure may involve agreement on confidentiality, how parties will deal with potential media interest, and whether or not observers of the mediation are allowed. Rules involving the mediator help establish expectations around what role the mediator will play in the session, how they lead the discussion, where they intervene or how they run the agenda.
Whichever of these ground rules the mediation participants agree to or deem suitable for their particular circumstances, this part of the process is a crucial first step in building trust and setting expectations up front which all contributes to a successful mediation outcome.