When disputes occur, it is common for some parties to adopt a more aggressive stance than others. This could manifest in various ways, including being confrontational and using attacking phrases. When faced with an impasse, the disputant might fallback on the language of war, using phrases like “I can’t retreat from my position” or “he keeps attacking what I said”, words designed to escalate conflict rather than bridge it. When an inherent aggression is tinged with a sense of hubris, the outcome can be catastrophic.
Consider a recent case involving two executive committee members of a prominent association who filed law suits against each other in the high court. When the presiding Judge instructed both parties to go to mediation, one side decided not to, thinking they had a sure-win case. The side that rejected mediation eventually lost the case and is now suing their lawyers. Their false arrogance resulted in a substantial loss and huge legal fees.
Experienced mediators are trained to help all parties - even those predisposed to aggression - to reframe conflicts during a negotiation. Here are five approaches they may use to help their clients:
1. Look at the issue through different lenses
“Do not judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins.” This Native American proverb reminds us to refrain from judging another because we may not be fully aware of what has shaped their opinions, values and identity. Mediators may use techniques like having respective parties imagine the other’s perspective, or using narrative forums and listening circles to help disputants understand the dynamics behind the conflict. Most importantly, they want to help the parties involved see that other perspectives may be just as valid and credible.
2. Reducing tension
Mediators seek to reduce tension and de-escalate hostility between disputants by creating forums framed around a set of limited objectives that encourage all parties to communicate openly. This helps to mitigate the risk of the cycle of conflict escalation
, which often happens when disputants come into the session with incompatible frames.
3. Finding common ground
Mediators may also help disputants establish common ground as a basis for agreement. Using visioning exercises
and other explorative processes, mediators guide the different parties to identify things they agree on, whether it be what they want the desired future to be, to actions that all parties can agree to. This helps shift the focus from the short-term perspective to a longer-term one.
4. Question what constitutes loss and gain
“In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity." Einstein’s wisdom resonates in a conflict setting, where mediators will help disputants identify the possible benefits that could be gained from resolving the conflict. Mediators will also seek to help the parties involved reframe their perceptions of loss into gains.
5. Having options is a good thing!
Mediators also help their clients see the value of having multiple options. By making options and alternatives desirable to the various parties involved in a dispute, mediators help disputants break out of a single-solution mindset
(i.e. an “I benefit/you lose” mindset or vice versa) and be open to multiple outcomes with different degrees of loss and gain, both tangible and intangible.
Dora Yip, HMG Research Associate