"The more we speak, the more we understand and the more pleasure there is in working."

These are the words of a senior negotiator in a recent mediation. At the end of two busy weeks of mediations, I am struck again by how important it is that people really understand where others are coming from. So often, differences arise because people have not really identified what the underlying problem is, what they really need and what their real purpose is. If we drill down under the surface, there is usually something which unites the parties in a conflict – we just have to find it.

Certainly, apparent deadlock can be broken by encouraging those with a problem to discuss what really worries them, what the underlying concerns are, and what they perceive to be the real risks they face. Such opening up, rather than being a weakness or exposing a party to exploitation as may be feared, will generally unlock a tough situation, and bring about reciprocal frankness by others. And the structure of mediation provides a framework and a degree of safety, together with privacy, for such direct discussions.

Call it effective communication or proper risk management, we all need to challenge our assumptions that what we see – and hear – on the surface is what it’s really about. ‘It’s usually not about what it’s about’ as someone famously said.

I have also been impressed by the skill of advisers and others who utilise the mediation process to negotiate with clarity and creativity. These days, fewer and fewer advisers resort to positional bargaining or adversarial posturing. Most now perceive that it is in the best interests of the clients to seek constructive solutions – and to persevere even when the going gets tough.

Of course, some disputes seem intractable: the five per cent or so that are just so hard to resolve. A fascinating new book by Peter Coleman of the International Project on Conflict and Complexity, entitled The Five Per Cent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts, gives us some clues as to why – and some answers. For another time…!

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