Methods to Resolve Impasse
Mediation is an art. It is most effective when it is based on deep appreciation of
the economic and other interests motivating the parties. It also is important to understand interpersonal, cultural and irrational forces contributing to impasse. Through
trained awareness, the mediator may select promising methods.
observing how the parties respond, the mediator determines how much confidence to
place in that method and whether to switch to another. There is no simple formula that
works in all cases. People and controversies are unique. The mediator must be
sensitive to all the influences affecting the controversy and the participants.
For a full understanding of my personal qualifications, please review my resume.
- Share interests. What do you really want? What is your
bottom line? What are the underlying interests (not the
positions) that motivate you? Where are you relatively
- Future projects. What might the sides do in the future that
would be even more valuable than past activities, providing
you can put this controversy behind them?
- Assign both parties to read the book Getting to Yes by Prof.
Roger Fisher. It has ideas that may help to break the
- Brainstorming: Clearly setting up rules that permit anything
to be said, regardless of whom it favors or where it may
- Ask the parties for a way to
break the impasse. Brainstorm about a way.
- Propose one or a few options: Here are some ideas I have
had. They count for nothing unless the parties both like the
- BATNA and WATNA. Ask each side to develop their "Best
alternative to a negotiated agreement" and their "worst
alternative to a negotiated agreement." This will permit the
parties to see more clearly what is at stake by remembering
the best and worst that may happen to them if the
- Role play: Ask the parties to exchange roles. Then ask
them to remember everything they can about the other
person and the other person's position. Ask them to feel
like the other person and to be the other person. If they
want, they may ask for clarification from the real person,
either at the beginning of the exercise or as it progresses.
- Fly (or sage) on the wall: When an impasse develops, ask
one party to physically leave a seat and stand
near the wall. Ask them to play the role of
"objective observer," "sage" or even "God" and to look back
at the controversy as it is being played out. They may give both
parties advice on the smart thing to do to resolve the
problem. A similar technique is brainstorming about options.
- Switch roles. Become a party. Let one of the parties
become the mediator for a while.
- Exaggeration: Ask one or both sides to exaggerate both
their position and their emotional attitude. (Sometimes
exaggeration permits a person to reflect on what they are
doing in a fresh way.)
- Fresh blood: Ask the parties to send in a fresh person who
is authorized to act but has not seen all the blood-letting
that has occurred.
- Story telling. Let each side be invited to share a story about
an experience that reminds them of what is happening
now. Encourage the sharing of stories when a party seemed to be in the shoes the other party now has.
- Relaxed clothes, formal clothes. Ask people to change the way they dress
when they come to the next session. Remove ties and jackets. This may make people more
- Confrontation. Confront one or both sides about what they
are doing and the likely results of continuing in that way.
- Setting deadlines. We must accomplish "x" in the next hour
or I will assume that there is no will in this room toward
- Offer to forfeit a portion of your fee if the parties can settle
before a set deadline. (Only helpful where the size of the
fee is large in relationship to the importance of the conflict.)
- List some things that may be at stake: money, prestige,
trust, respect, etc. Ask the parties to decide which of these
things seems to be most in-the-way of breaking the
- If someone shows some emotion, comment on the
emotion and ask them what the emotion indicates. Examples: Irritation, anger, nervous laughter, a
noticeable change in body position, a "closed" body
position, an expression of satisfaction or release.
- Time out or, when appropriate, meditation or prayer;
Permit a break, perhaps in the room together. Do not
permit anything to be said. Ask people to reflect in silence
on new possibilities they have not seen.
- External mechanism: Agree on an objective way to find the
value of something. For example, agree that certain other
objects that have sold recently have the same value.
Agree to be bound by the actual prices paid for those other
- Neutral evaluation: Pick someone else to comment on the
value of something that is crucial to the argument.
- Confidence building. Have the parties to an important
dispute together in a relaxed, retreat-type setting. Let some
of the sessions consist of mutual activities or of relaxing
together with no particular agenda.
- Acknowledgment. Let each party reflect on the admirable
character qualities(!) shown by the other party. Ask them to
share their admiration.
- Relaxed clothes, formal clothes. Ask people to dress
differently. To sit in different locations. To sip a cold drink.
(If they are informal, ask if becoming more formal might
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