Shuttle Diplomacy: Does It Work?

Tim White was a high-ranking gang member from the South Side of Chicago. He sold drugs, spent years in and out of jail, and lived a violent life. In prison, he “found” religion and has since become a Baptist minister. One day, he was talking on the corner with the leaders of two rival gangs, trying to convince them to stop a gang war from erupting. On the street, other gang members came over, guns came out, and finally White convinced everyone to leave before the cops showed up.

Over the next few days, he went to each leader and helped broker a peace treaty between the two gangs. It worked, and further violence was avoided. Tim White used shuttle diplomacy effectively when it became clear that mediation (as unconventional as it was) would not work. The two leaders could not be in the same room without posturing and threatening; their gangs would not back down for fear of losing face.

These separate meetings were the only way to reach an agreement that was satisfactory for both sides. Caucusing and shuttle diplomacy have fallen out of favor with many mediators but as White proves, it can be useful when applied correctly.

The presence of physical danger to the parties and/or is usually a very good time for shuttle diplomacy. Likely you are not involved in “mediation” of this caliber, but White’s story does serve to demonstrate when it is appropriate to separate the parties and shuttle messages between them.

  • When one or both parties threaten or become violent or abusive. This happens, for instance, in some divorce and child custody cases. A cooling off period can be invaluable.
  • When the level of emotion is so high that parties cannot be in the same room. They could either be too anxious, sad, angry, frustrated, tense, or stressed to handle direct communication. Shuttle diplomacy doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing; a mediator can use it to break an impasse or until the parties are able to speak face-to-face.
  • When it is carried out with the interests of both parties in mind. A common complaint of shuttle diplomacy is that it creates the appearance of favoritism or bias in the mediator. If  this can be avoided, it may be a good solution to a difficult situation.
  • When one or both parties is/are not able to clearly articulate their interests. The mediator may have to work a bit harder to get the story out, and this can be easier if each party is handled separately.
  • When the mediator feels it would be beneficial, efficient, and effective to caucus with the parties’ attorneys or do some reality testing that may embarrass a party if done in joint session.

There are drawbacks to caucusing and shuttle diplomacy; in some cases, though, it is the best option to ensure mediation proceeds and the hope of a resolution is not lost. Tim White presents an extreme example, but tensions and emotions can run high in virtually any type of mediation situation. When they do, it is important that shuttle diplomacy be an option open for consideration.

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