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When Parties Argue In an Unfocused Way

by Diane Cohen
May 2011

From Diane Cohen's Blog

Diane Cohen

I recently observed some role plays and, as always, a new realization came to mind. While the mediators knew to reflect, reframe and summarize, some of them were not helping the parties make progress because they were not using the right intervention at the optimum moment. I wondered whether I could formulate a helpful guideline for how to know when to use each one.

In one case, the parties were bickering about an issue but they were lacking the ability to focus on their areas of agreement and disagreement and pinpoint the issue. In that case, the mediator’s strategy of reflecting back what each party was saying was infective because they needed help zeroing in on the issue. The mediator could have been extremely helpful by helping the parties pinpoint their areas of agreement and disagreement. The mediator could have asked the parties questions to focus their thinking, if necessary. After that, the mediator could have summarized the issue and checked with the parties to see if it was a correct summary. That would have created not just movement, but satisfying movement, clarity and a sense of relief for the parties.

My takeaway from this is that mediators can use the following guideline:

When parties are arguing without focus, the mediator will be most helpful by helping them to focus. Reflecting and reframing are unlikely to do this. Instead, the mediator should try to summarize the issue with specificity. If the mediator is unable to understand what the issue is, the mediator can ask questions to get a deeper understanding of the issue before summarizing. If the parties are arguing without focus and ignoring the fact that they are not really disagreeing, the mediator can be most helpful by pointing out how the parties are agreeing and if true, that it is not clear precisely how the parties are disagreeing, if at all. Parties who are “pushing each other’s buttons” may be exploding at one another even though they are not disagreeing about the issues. The mediator can help them see that.

Biography


Diane Cohen is a mediator in private practice and writes regularly on the process of mediation. Diane is an impasse mediator, and therefore mediates in all realms, but primarily in the family, divorce and workplace areas. Diane is a former co-president of the Family and Divorce Mediation Council of Greater New York. She has a J.D. from Columbia Law School, was certified as a community mediator by the Unified Court System in New York, and is a NYSDRA-certified mediator. She conducts workshops for mediators who want to work on their mediation skills.



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