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Four Lessons From Mediators for Bridging Differences

Four Lessons From Mediators for Bridging Differences

We can learn to resolve disputes more effectively if we understand the strategies mediators use for overcoming seemingly intractable conflict.


By the time Josh and his cohort of U.S. federal mediators entered the negotiation room in Washington, D.C., what should have been a momentous occasion was a hot mess.

At a meeting between negotiators representing hundreds of Native American tribes and the federal government, dozens of people were angrily clamoring for seats. Assistants, advocates, lobbyists, attorneys, civil servants, and members of the public were also elbowing their way through the crowded negotiation room. It was a worst-case scenario for Josh and his colleagues, federal mediators tasked with resolving some of our nation’s most complex disputes.

For over 30 years, we’ve studied conflict and how it can go wrong. At the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, our wheelhouse is navigating tough disputes effectively. We lead research that promotes constructive conflict resolution and helps people work through wicked problems. And our research feels especially relevant today, in a world where even minor disputes—as well as major problems like COVID that in the past might have unified our communities—often become weaponized politically and trigger outrage and resistance in so many of us.

Ten years ago, we undertook a review of mediation studies that revealed a fragmented understanding of the best ways to handle conflicts that go off the rails. It came at the urging of the United Nations’ Mediation Support Unit, which wanted to arm its envoys with proven tactics to soothe difficult conflicts. So, we ran a series of new studies with expert mediators to unearth the major flashpoints that often spoil mediation efforts and keep conflict entrenched. We’ve since developed and tested strategies for navigating those derailers that can help community, business, and government leaders address them effectively and help people bridge differences.

Why some conflicts resist resolution

What causes mediation to fail?

We group the derailers into four categories:

  • Conflict intensity: high levels of conflict escalation, emotional volatility, destructiveness, or complexity. Picture mediating between two angry, irate, and resentful brothers over their long history of grievances.
  • Constraints: mediation efforts that are greatly constrained by time, law, cost, or cultural mores. This is common in many settings, such as when mediating disputes involving foreign cultures, governments, or large multinational institutions such as the U.N. and the World Bank.
  • Competition: when conflicts occur between people or groups who are solely competing for coveted scarce resources. Imagine mediating between two five year olds over the control of the only available garden hose on a hot summer day. The disputants view these as purely win-lose.
  • Covert issues: when conflicts involve issues that prove difficult or dangerous to talk about openly. We see this a lot when mediating with families or in disputes between individuals with large differences in power, such as between managers and staff.

Once we understood what caused many mediations to fail, we asked Josh and other successful mediators for insights, and then used that feedback to generate a set of practical, evidence-based approaches intended to wrangle each of these challenges effectively.

Turns out, each of these four tripwires requires mediators to step into a very different posture to limit the damage and get back on track. They include:

  • The Medic: to triage the conflict and reduce heated spikes in intensity
  • The Fixer: to manage highly restrictive situational constraints
  • The Referee: to support firm, fair, and friendly process in all-out competition
  • The Counselor: to carefully surface unexpressed concerns or hidden agendas

We think these four strategies can help to keep heads cooler, smooth negotiated interactions, and promote agreement. But first, let’s see how Josh and his colleagues tamed this breakdown between the federal government and the tribal nations.

Read the complete article here.

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