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Preparing for Mediation: A Practical Guide to Saving Face

Read the excerpt on Opening Statement here.

Saving Face
Mediators help parties Save Face, Restore Face, and Protect Face, with Face being the need to be perceived in a positive manner. When we honor Face, we recognize another’s need to be admired, appreciated, and valued. When we tend to their esteem, we tend to their Face.

When we suffer Face Loss we experience confusion, embarrassment, a sense of inferiority; our self-image is damaged. Face Loss results from put-downs, sarcasm, snide remarks, and actions that diminish our self-worth.

When we are harmed or overpowered we experience Face Loss. People have a strong need to maintain a favorable self-image that provides inner contentment and supplies the exterior confidence required to sustain quality relationships. When we suffer Face Loss we shut down our interactions, which further exacerbates conflict. In our effort to Save Face we may not even admit conflict exists!

The need to Save Face is a common barrier to convening. If a party must admit they have been unable to handle conflict, they experience Face Loss. In their mind, only ineffective, incompetent, or weak people fail to resolve conflict. Or they may consider they must always be loving and caring – thus the presence of conflict signals they are flawed, which creates Face Loss. Thus, the need to Save Face may not allow them to even admit a conflict must be addressed.

For this reason, resistance to mediation often signals a need to Save Face. In response, a mediator proposes guidelines that Protect Face and frames conflict as normal. Conflict resolution is not a remedy for our flaws, he explains, but rather is how people advanced in social skills work together. In mediation, he explains we do not seek to repair shortcomings but rather seek to use our skills to reestablish harmony.

Previous Face Loss
In most conflicts Face Loss looms large. Parties are certain that disrespect cannot be forgiven. While issues regarding “the deal” might be amenable to resolution, Face Loss is beyond remedy. They can work around a contract breach, a failure to pay, a disputed boundary, a broken treaty, a salary dispute, or a barking dog – but, in their view, insults and disrespect make mediation impossible. They protest, “There is no way I will sit down with that kind of person.”

A Face Threat ends the convening conversation, especially if previous insults are glibly excused with the platitude: “We all say nasty things when we are upset.” Instead, a mediator works to Restore Face. He may need to choreograph a tentative apology or mild expression of regret. Such a mild conciliatory move is often needed; it should not place emphasis on previous Face Loss yet it should provide hope for future respect.

You might assume a previous grave insult requires an equally weighty apology to jumpstart the process; instead, the change in direction – from Face Threat to Face Saving – is what matters. An overly profuse apology at this stage appears unrealistic: it is not credible. The offended party can accept only a modicum of remorse as realistic. A grand gesture arouses suspicion.

The challenge we face is how to Restore Face while avoiding additional Face Loss, which occurs if we point out previous Face Loss. We must avoid implying the other party was weak and vulnerable. For example, a preliminary apology may elicit denial: “You embarrassed me? No way. I didn’t even notice what you said. Forget about it. It’s fine.” The inner dialogue, however, mixes unexpressed resentment (over the past) with unexpressed gratitude (for the apology). Ironically, the offended party’s desire to make their adversary grovel is offset by a need to deny they were vulnerable in the first place!

Unrecognized Threats to Face
A party may express emotional defensiveness that seems out of proportion to the substance of the conflict. Undetected Face Loss drives Face Saving behavior. The party hides their hurt yet attempts to Protect Face with hostile stances. If we are not careful, Face Loss remains unrecognized and unacknowledged and impedes convening.

If this seems to be an overly fine-grained analysis I assure you it is not. When it comes to Face, a mediator is an explosives expert disarming a bomb – it does matter which wire he disconnects.
Will the need to Save Face inhibit efforts to convene?
Has Face Loss occurred?
What will you need to do to Restore Face so mediation can take place?
Will you need to discuss Saving Face with the mediator?
Will there be a need for apology?
How will prior insults or disrespect be addressed?

The Mediator and Face Needs
When a party represents a Face Threat to the other party there is little chance of convening. In contrast, when a mediator honors Face, it prompts inner dialogue: “You [the other party] may not respect me, but the mediator does. So you [the other party] are wrong, I do have worth.”

Where previously there was only impasse, hope surfaces.
During convening, a mediator may ask you to express your concerns regarding procedure and help design guidelines that promote safety and assuage fears. A party may insist they not be called an insulting name, or they may insist the other party not yell at them. A party may express a fear of meeting jointly and ask for separate sessions, a form of shuttle diplomacy.
The mediator works with you to design a process that provides hope and safety.
What do you assume might prevent the other party from coming to the table?
How might the mediator help the other party overcome the barrier?
What process guidelines are needed?
Should safety issues be brought to the mediator’s attention?
Have you discussed guidelines and safety with your attorney?
Will it be necessary to avoid joint sessions at the beginning?



Greg Stone

  Greg Stone graduated from the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University Law School in 2007 after a career in television commercial production. His first book, Taming the Wolf: Peace through Faith, a guide to mediation, introduces a faith-based approach to mediation. Through presentations, workshops, and mediation with… MORE >

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