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.

By 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.

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Method Examples
Looking for common interests
  • 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 flexible?

  • 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 impasse.
Create options
  • Brainstorming: Clearly setting up rules that permit anything to be said, regardless of whom it favors or where it may lead.

  • 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 ideas.
Weighing practical alternatives
  • 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 negotiations fail.
Change perspectives
  • 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 comfortable.
  • 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 settlement.

  • 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 impasse.

  • 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.
Invite expert opinion
  • 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 objects.

  • Neutral evaluation: Pick someone else to comment on the value of something that is crucial to the argument.
Learning appreciation
  • 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 help.)

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