I have been reflecting on how we, as mediators, deal with the seemingly implacable hurt, anger and frustration we sometimes find in mediations, where people can appear willing to bring a whole enterprise down (whatever that enterprise may be). Often this is associated with what can seem like dogma, deliberate polarisation, unwillingness to listen and so on.


A few thoughts from recent experiences: 


•    Work with the other side to help them understand what is going on and the things they might do to change their (apparently irrational) adversaries’ thinking – by surprising them, explicitly acknowledging them, accepting that such and such is their world view (even if apparently irrational), reassuring them that their views matter and that a solution is being sought. Help them to feel valued. 

•    Talk explicitly about the work of writers like Daniel Kahnemann, about his two systems (in Thinking, Fast and Slow), how these things happen to us all – and why.  Discuss (in lay people’s language) the emerging science around unconscious bias, attribution error, reactive devaluation, wilful blindness etc. Even if they don’t accept it, the very discussion creates space for deeper thought. Sometimes (if the circumstances are right) I read passages from books: for example, from William Ury’s new book (Getting to Yes with Yourself, look at page 170, you’ll see what I mean) and Richard Stengel’s Mandela’s Lessons on Life. On other occasions, I read from Ken Cloke, about the masks we all wear (see Mediating Dangerously). And I reflect on what I sense in the room. Always neutral, often recognising my own imperfections.

•    Pose what I call "mediator questions", rhetorically. "What lies beneath?" "What really worries, frustrates, hurts people?" "Who are the outside voices, not in the room, and what pressures are they applying?" "What impact is this having?" What is the cost and for how long will you pay it?" "How have each of you contributed to this?" "What can you do today to make a difference/change things?" "What is really going on?" Mostly rhetorical as I say but, on one occasion, I asked one party to reflect on some of these questions orally to the apparently dogmatic party. That exercise rather shocked the others and produced a constructive response, a chink. On other occasions, you don’t have to hear the penny drop….

•    It is important to challenge (my and others’) assumptions: what people say is not necessarily what they think, how people behave is not necessarily who they are. Be specific about some of this. Assume everyone is trying his or her best in their circumstances. It is useful to articulate that.

•    Some private work on the Big Picture (or “the horizon”, to raise the eyes) can help to break a cycle of resistance, with the customary questions: what it will look like if this is really behind you, what do the family really think, what will the board really think if you lose in court in two years’ time (substitute or alternate “think” with “feel”). 

•    Classic BATNAS and WATNAS I take as central, along with decision tree analysis, not just financial but the non-monetary. The flip chart provides a visual record of such matters to enable digestion and reflection, even for people apparently to disagree with. All of this may help change the mind-set. Again, we don’t have to hear the pennies drop……. or rub people’s faces in it.

•    On one occasion, I invited (by agreement) a third party with a stake but neutral, to take part. He explained the consequences of certain courses of action. He was direct, blunt even. His contribution was arresting and engaged Kahnemann’s system 2. As mediator, I was able to piggyback on that. 


There are many more possibilities, I am sure! And many of these can be used by negotiators in direct negotiations too.

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