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Mediation Lessons from the Cockpit - Facilitative versus Evaluative

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Both facilitative and evaluative styles of mediation have their place, but, to me, there’s a danger of always being indirect and facilitative. In a stressful mediation, facilitative comments may be too indirect to break through to a party. By looking at a real-world example, we can see the pitfalls of being too indirect and always using a facilitative approach.

Facilitative mediators try to guide parties towards a resolution through asking questions and finding common interests, ensuring that the parties are in charge of the outcome of the mediation. These mediators generally do not give opinions or predict outcomes. On the flip side, evaluative mediators point out the weaknesses in a case and predict what a judge or jury might do in an effort to bring the parties to an agreement to settle. Many mediators put themselves in one camp or another.

Hinting around at a problem and being indirect has its pitfalls. People, especially in stressful situations, can have a hard time picking up on the hints and cues a facilitative mediator may be giving. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, discusses the pitfalls of indirect communication in stressful situations. In particular, Gladwell analyzes cockpit voice recorders of several plane crashes to illustrate how indirect communication can be incredibly ineffective.

He uses as an example the 1982 crash of Florida Air flight 90. There, a plane was leaving Washington, D.C. for Florida in January during a snow storm. While waiting on the runway for takeoff in heavy snow, the first officer made several comments about ice on the wings. The plane had been de-iced at the gate, but various conditions since de-icing had caused ice to build back up pretty quickly. The captain was not very responsive to these comments and never ordered the plane back to the gate for more de-icing. Moments before being cleared for takeoff, the first officer says, “Let’s check these tops again since we[‘ve] been sitting here awhile.” The first officer is commenting about ice on the wings. The captain treated the comment as just chatter and did not respond. The captain did not perceive that the first officer was concerned about taking off with ice on the wings and did not analyze whether they should get de-iced or alter their takeoff plan to account for the ice. Shortly after takeoff, the pilots realized there was a problem. The plane was heavier than expected because of the ice, and it did not have the speed and lift that it needed to climb to clear surrounding structures fast enough. The plane crashed into a bridge, killing almost everyone on board and several people on the ground.

This crash occurred in the era of “the Captain is always right” mentality, which discouraged a first officer from directly confronting a captain.  The first officer never engaged in direct communication. He never said keywords like “problem” or “dangerous” and never directly suggested returning to be de-iced. The first officer just beat around the bush and tried to find other indirect ways to solve the problem that he saw. This is an example of how facilitative methods can fail because the communication does not carry enough force. Based on the transcript from the cockpit voice recorder, the captain seemed incredibly distracted and probably just looking forward to getting back to Florida. The first officer did not escalate his communication to break through that haze.

I think of facilitative and evaluative as a spectrum. In the beginning of a mediation, a facilitative approach makes sense as you are still trying to establish a relationship and rapport with each party. At those times, the facilitative style is non-confrontational, not offensive, may produce movement, and allows the mediator and the party to continue developing a rapport. Some people may be open enough to settling that the facilitative style will produce an agreement. However, some people are more entrenched in their thinking and need a more direct style of communication. This is where the evaluative approach is very useful. It does not have to be confrontational, but it is clear and direct. As the cockpit conversation proves, some people just need clear and direct communication at certain times. Facilitative methods definitely have their place. However, there is a good chance that an evaluative approach will need to be implemented when it becomes clear that a party is not listening or appreciating problems. This is why I see facilitative and evaluative as a spectrum that you move along depending on the parties and the circumstances.

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