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The Paradox of Accepting One’s Share of Responsibility in Mediation

Just last week I posted Eat toast in bed – go to sleep with crumbs on the tricky matter of the mediator raising party responsibility for the conflict in which that person now sits directly across from the mediator.

So you can imagine my unease when I stumbled across an article a couple of days later in the most recent edition of PON’s Negotiation Journal called The Paradox of Accepting One’s Share of Responsibility in Mediation by Jean Poitras, Associate Professor of Conflict Management at HEC, Montreal that started with the words “mediators generally avoid the issue of whether parties accept their individual share of responsibility for a conflict”.

In a very readable article (abstract only, no full text link) Jean reports on a study he undertook demonstrating the important role that taking responsibility for the conflict can play in encouraging the emergence of cooperation within the mediation process.

Let me try to bring out the main points from a practitioner perspective;

1. If you are going to encourage parties to acknowledge their responsibilities think about two things;

  • first, what type of acceptance are you aiming for? There are varying degrees of acceptance including internal acceptance of how one’s own behaviour has contributed through to an outward acknowledgement and/or apology.
  • second, private or public? Should acknowledgements be in separate caucus or in joint meeting? Do it in caucus and you will avoid much risk around unilateral acknowledgement and loss of face, but it’s not that simple. Mutual acceptance of responsibility is more likely to bring about cooperation so a joint discussion may be needed…

2. But here’s the rub one of the most interesting findings is paradoxical;

“…that accepting one’s share of responsibility is a double-edged sword. When only one party acknowledges his errors, collaboration can actually be impeded. When both parties recognize their errors, it is facilitated. The difficulty that then emerges from this analysis is this: how does the mediator create a climate of mutual acceptance of responsibility? Who begins? Will the other party also recognize his responsibility?”

Jean’s article is a tremendous insight into an overlooked aspect of the mediation dynamic and I am sure we will see more on this subject from the good professor.

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                        author

Geoff Sharp

Geoff Sharp is a Commercial Mediator from Wellington, New Zealand. Geoff works in the Asia Pacific region, including New Zealand, Malaysia, Thailand and Pacific Islands. He is a mediator resolving business problems. He is a fellow of the International Academy of Mediators and mediates complex and hotly debated litigation covering… MORE >

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