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Mediation and Early Childhood Development

by Phyllis Pollack
April 2011

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

Phyllis  Pollack

A colleague, Elizabeth Bader, wrote a very interesting article discussing the link between psychology and mediation entitled The Psychology of Mediation: Issues of Self and Identity and the IDR Cycle, 10 Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal 183 (2010). (Bader,SelfandIdentity) In it, Ms. Bader shows the reader that the identity of self about which we all learned in psychology class plays a much more important role in negotiation and mediation than we think.

In simple terms, Ms. Bader delves into rudimentary child psychology, explaining how initially an infant sees himself and his mother as one and the same with ongoing “mirroring” by the mother. Thus, the infant is in a narcissistic phase as the infant has “a sense of omnipotence derived largely from the sense that he shares in his mother’s powers” (Id. at p. 186). Eventually, the infant begins to enter the “terrible twos” in which he “… begins to discover that “contrary to his earlier narcissistic sense of omnipotence, he is, in fact, a very small person in a very big world.” ” (Id. at p. 187). The child is in conflict: he wants to be independent but needs his mother’s help about which he is in denial.

Finally, the child does develop an independent self and “develops the capacity to internalize an image or representation of mother in his mind.” (Id.) So, while his mother may not be physically present all the time, she is still in the toddler’s mind’s eye.

Ms. Bader argues that a mediation has this same cycle! Initially, the parties enter mediation with “overconfident expectations” (Id. at p. 204). Ms. Bader explains that the overconfidence is actually a type of grandiosity and thus may be correlated to narcissism, or “inflated positive views of the self” just as with an infant:

“One chooses to experience an idealized sense of one’s negotiating possibilities (and implicitly one’s self) in part as a defense to the sense of vulnerability and anxiety attendant upon participation in negotiation and mediation.” (Id. at p. 205).

Then comes the offer or first counter-offer. The initial stage of narcissistic inflation hits a bump in the road, resulting in deflation and disappointment. Ms. Bader argues that the mediator’s response becomes crucial here: by showing respect to the parties, the mediator addresses the psychological issue of sense of self of each party. By mirroring and validating each party, the mediator assists each party to become less defensive and thus assists each party to traverse the stage of deflation (or the child’s equivalent of the “terrible twos”).

Ms. Bader continues:

“Painful as it may sometimes be, as the negotiation continues, the parties begin to acquire greater resilience and more information about the other side’s interests and positions. They also begin to learn just what in their own previously over confident assessment are unrealistic.” (Id. at p. 208).

Slowly, each party begins to acknowledge not only the strengths but also the weaknesses of her position. Each obtains a more reality based view of the matter and slowly grows into settlement, thus entering the third stage – realistic resolution.

Ms. Bader suggests that the mediator, herself, travels through these same three cycles during a mediation; initially an overconfidence in being able to settle the matter (i.e. narcissistic inflation); then hitting the impasse and with it a fear of failure or not “performing” (i.e. deflation) and then – if the mediator is able to “let go” of her self image as the “great” mediator and is able to get the parties also to “let go” of their egos and self identity, the mediator enters the third and final stage of realistic resolution. (Id. at p. 209.)

In sum, Ms. Bader urges that a mediation goes through the stages of early childhood development: narcissistic inflation, deflation and then realistic resolution or IDR for short. (Id. at p. 184).

Quite a lot to chew on. . . .!

. . . Just something to think about!


Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as well as their own needs better than any mediator or arbitrator. She does not impose her views or make decisions for the parties. Rather, Phyllis assists the parties in creating options that meet the needs and desires of both sides.  When appropriate, visual aids are used in preparing discussions and illustrating possible solutions. On the other hand, she is not averse to being proactive and offering a generous dose of reality, particularly when the process may have stalled due to unrealistic expectations of attorney or client, a failure to focus on needs rather than demands, or when one or more parties need to be reminded of the potential consequences of their failure to reach an agreement.

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