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Mediation: It’s a Card Game, Isn’t It?

Think back to caucus sessions with positional parties. Do these refrains sound familiar? — “They’re bluffing,” or “What have they got up their sleeve?” I have noticed that parties who are dug into positions seem to frame their negotiations like a card game: “We’ve got a trump card in our back pocket but we will only play it if we have to.”

Now I wonder, since they have already framed the game any ways, would it be worthwhile to unmask their game frame and probe this metaphor? I think so. There may be value in probing the metaphor for underlying perceptions of power imbalances, for instance.

This article proposes a probing intervention of the card game metaphor in caucus and a participatory exercise to be used in joint session. The purpose is to unmask the parties’ assumption that negotiation is like a game of poker by working with their card game lingo. This tool is helpful for averting positional behaviour. This is not an expansive situational tool, but you will recognize the opportunities.

First, I see value in unmasking card game lingo if the positional party is using it in caucus. For instance, you could unmask and probe a comment like: “the deck is stacked against us” as follows:

Mediator: “Stacked against you, like in a card game where the other player has fixed the deck somehow so no matter what you can’t win?” (reflect)

Party: “Yeah, right. This negotiation is not fair. It is an uneven table” Mediator: “It sounds as though you feel like you are in a card game and the other party has all the trump cards. How much hope do you have for a successful negotiation?” (unmask the card game metaphor and explore sense of hopelessness).

Party: “Very little, I don’t know if there is much point in continuing.” Mediator: “What are the other parties trump cards?” (probe to elicit an understanding of where the sense of hopelessness lies by reflecting the metaphor).

In this example the mediator unmasks the metaphor, not judging it, and then reflects, probes and summarizes using the lingo. The next phase of intervention would be an interrogative exploration of the value of a card game metaphor in negotiations, followed by a mediator’s re-frame away from the metaphor. All of these during caucus in preparation for joint session. More than likely, both sides will be using the lingo.

For instance, in this example the other negotiating party may say: “The other guys are playing a weak hand well, but at the end of the day we all know how this dispute is going to end.” Back in joint session the mediator can give a neutral summary of the exchange she/he heard during caucus and suggest a less competitive negotiation approach.

A second kind of intervention could occur when the mediator judges that a joint session exercise is needed to unlock negotiations in the competitive card game metaphor frame the parties have developed. Again, this tool is only appropriate if the mediator hears the card game lingo.

Here is a potential joint session exercise.

Mediator: “I have heard a few comments during negotiations that give me the sense that both parties think this is bit of a card game. Card games are competitive in nature. In a poker game the winner gets the whole pot of winnings. I would like to explore this negotiation as if it were a card game, look at your assumptions about the other side’s hand and your hand. Explore your assessment of whether this is a fair game. Is the deck stacked against you? You are at a crucial stage in your negotiations. Nearing “deadlock” perhaps. So lets take an hour to look at the negotiation with new eyes. Here is what I propose as an exercise.

1) Assume for a moment, this negotiation is like a game of poker, and each side has five cards.

2) Now each side will go into caucus and answer the following questions:

a) Of the five cards, two are weak cards. Label these two cards with your negotiating weakness (e.g.: we have no money to resource the negotiation, we are just bluffing about court action. Now think about the other side’s weak cards, what are they? b) Your other three cards are you strong cards. Label your trump cards. What are they? (E.g. we have information they don’t realize we have, we really don’t care how long this takes, as long as they are pre-occupied). What does the other side have for trump cards?

c) Is this a fair game? Are the rules knowns? If not why not?”

Once the questions are answered the mediator can probe the group for underlying interests and to unmask power imbalances. The last step in caucus is for the parties, with the mediator’s help, to re-label their cards with interests rather than positions. And for the mediator to explore consequences for a failed negotiation. The mediator will close caucus with a question like: “How useful is the card game metaphor for you while seeking to have your interests met?” When the parties return to joint session, the mediator will ask a spokesperson from each side to summarize the discussion they had in caucus. The goal is for the parties to recognize the card game metaphor, and to assess this metaphor’s usefulness in meeting their interests.

While mediating I listen for repetition because it usually flags an unmet need. And now I also listen for metaphors like the card game because it provides an opportunity for the mediator to reflect the group’s language and explore the underlying assumptions of the metaphor. I continue to be surprised how frequently card game lingo is used in negotiations. There is an academic inquisitorial opportunity here to explore deeper the cultural reasons for negotiators to adopt the card game metaphor – “go fish.”


Michael Blackstock

Michael Blackstock is principal of Oxygen Communications and provides mediation and communication coaching in cross-cultural conflicts. MORE >

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