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Techniques for Breaking an Impasse
Annette Nay, Ph.D.
Copyright 2003

Every case which comes to mediation has reached an impasse. Often, the parties will discover a way to find agreement on their own. In most cases, however, the mediator must intervene creatively to break an impasse. The following are a few of the possible techniques which may create a breakthrough:
  1. Break the issue down into smaller parts, isolating the most difficult issues and reserving these for later.
  2. Ask the parties why an alternative is unacceptable, the look for narrow solutions tailored to the reasons given.
  3. Go to other issues, to take a break and ask the parties to think about the various alternatives presented.
  4. Review the parties' priorities and common interests.
  5. Suggest consulting and expert to supply needed facts or advice.
  6. Caucus with each party separately to explore hidden agendas and willingness to compromise.
  7. Split the difference.
  8. Try to obtain agreement on what the parties originally expect the solution would be.
  9. Look for possible tradeoffs or change services.
  10. Encourage the parties to recognize and acknowledge each other's points of view.
  11. Tell the parties you are stuck and ask for their help.
  12. Ask the parties to indicate what would change or happen if they reached a solution.
  13. Make certain the parties prefer mediation, as opposed to letting the conflict continue, or litigation. If they don't find out why.
  14. Look at the impact of various solutions on an involved third party.
  15. Test for emotional investment in a given item by asking what it would take to get the parties to surrender it.
  16. Compliment the parties on reaching earlier points of agreement and being willing to compromise, encourage them to reach a complete agreement and put this dispute behind them.
  17. Remind the parties what will happier if they do not settle. State what each stands to lose.
  18. Create a minute of silence for the parties to think.
  19. Ask more questions about the problem, about feelings, priorities, alternative solutions, flexibility, hidden agendas, reluctance to compromise, anger at one another, etc., or return to agenda setting.
  20. Serve food or nonalcoholic drinks to get them to relax.
  21. End the session and assign homework for the parties to return to the next session with written alternatives or reasons or financial data, etc.
  22. Generate options by asking the parties to brainstorm without considering the practicality of the suggestion.
  23. Tell the parties which alternative you believe is fair and why. This should only be done if all other options fail.
  24. Suggest binding arbitration by a third unbiased party as a last-ditch alternative.
  25. Suggest that the parties increase their fighting, as a paradox to show the uselessness of the conflict.

Reference: Cloke, Kenneth, (1990). Mediation: Revenge and the Magic of Forgiveness. Center for Dispute Resolution, Santa Monica, CA

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