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Impasse Breaking Tip: What Would it Sound Like To You If They Understood?

I anguished over whether to write this piece or not. On one hand, I wanted to share this experience with others. On the other hand, I was concerned some practitioners may find this concept too elementary and consequently think less of me for writing about it. Then I factored in a major concern I have about our profession: that we have a scarcity of casework discussion. There seems to be not enough inter-collegial sharing about mediation technique and casework. What works well, or what does not, and why. I wonder if we practitioners are so concerned about client confidentiality, or our reputations, that we are inhibited from even discussing general casework principles in an anonymous manner?

Once I factored in my concern about low levels of technique sharing, I resolved to write about this experience to expand our discussion of practice. This piece dovetails well with a Commercial Casework Panel Discussion I will facilitate this August at the ACR conference in Orlando. If you have other ideas for technique, or interesting casework you’d like to see discussed in this column, let me know.

The following particular technique worked well to re-animate a rather stalled mediation with amazing results. It certainly saved the session, and likely the mediation. It is a minor variation on something seemingly very basic that we probably all learned in freshman Interpersonal Communication 101. But the application of this technique to this case, in this particular moment, so extremely transformed the stances of the parties that I was very nearly stunned. We went from the brink of an acrimonious breakdown to candid communication and progressive momentum in just moments. This is how it went.

Like any good mediator, I strive to be persistent, patient, and creative in trying to facilitate communication between parties. This case was a rather ‘hot’ one with a lengthy, intense, inter-party history which had escalated and been exacerbated over time. The issue on the table was just one of many, and was symptomatic of other organic conflicts the parties had suffered. Plus, splinter issues frequently emerged to fracture our momentum and further complicate our progress. My preferred tendency to mediate in a facilitative-transformative mode was increasingly altered by more directive tendencies.

In this highly tempestuous environment, Party A simply could not get across to Party B what they had to say about the issue we were trying to resolve. Even though different people had said it several times, in different ways. We worked that particular issue forward, backward, inside out, and sideways for most of an afternoon. We took breaks. We caucused. By close to the end of the day, Parties A and B were just not able to connect on the same wavelength.

High emotions, damaged confidence, and fear all took their toll on the dispositions of the Parties. Rationality was scarce. However, I believed we could find a mutually successful resolution if only they could keep talking. As pain, disturbance, and frustration increased despite all efforts, emotional exhaustion became a significant factor in the process. It was clear that their joint interest to participate in the process was waning. I was concerned they would choose to walk away and leave our progress undone and the prospects for their future relations darkened. Then this rather basic technique came to mind. I believe that this intervention, working well at that particular moment, combined with other factors, principally saved the mediation from breakdown.

What would you like to hear them say back to you if they ‘got it?’ How would it sound to A if B were to ‘get it,’ and interpret ‘it’ back to A? Party A was asked what it would sound like to them if party B were to paraphrase their message. What does A imagine B would say, while paraphrasing A, which would convince A that B had understood A thoroughly? This slight turn of arrangement, this variation of interpretation, this particular alteration of ‘the message’ as A imagined it would sound if B were to outline it, did the trick. The lights of understanding went on in the eyes ( and heart ) of Party B. After that, it was reasonably short work to find a temporary resolution that suited all the stakeholders to the conflict.

Probably a chief factor in the success of this tactic was that A, in responding to the question, altered the message as A imagined B might do, considering B’s perspective. I believe this change of presentation perspective, A speaking from what A imagined B’s perspective to be, instead of A speaking to B from A’s own perspective, finally got the point across to B. Maybe the shared level of exhaustion precipitated the Parties understanding. Maybe it was the mutual knowledge that time was short and their self-interest dictated that an understanding be found. Maybe it was the sincerity B could read in A’s presentation. Maybe all these factors combined in some ratio broke the impasse. In any case, the experience left everyone at the table surprised and even slightly dubious about the marvelous transformation of their relationship at that point. It was an extreme “Aha!” moment.

While I can’t say that I could ‘feel the love’ at the end of session, I did sense the positive effects of the revelation in the relationship. There was a dramatic reduction of tension and hostility combined with a corresponding increase in demonstrated commitment to mutual problem resolution. This intervention re-energized their willingness to continue to work together. It was a certain kind of victory that they shared together. This event is a typical example of why I prefer to mediate.

This was a recent experience of mine. How would it look and feel to you to see your latest professional “Aha!” written about in this column? Let me know at [email protected].


Tom Oswald

Tom Oswald is a civil/commercial mediator and conflict consultant from Boston. He practices both domestically and internationally and has been employed as a civil case court mediator.  Professional publishing includes editing the Commercial Section for, several pieces in various Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR) publications, and others. He has… MORE >

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