How To Overcome Impasse

by Department of Veterans Affairs
June 2001 image
As negotiations proceed, Parties sometimes reach an impasse -- often not due to overt conflict, but rather due to resistance to workable solutions or simply exhaustion of creativity. While the impasse might signal that the dispute is unresolvable in mediation, the mediator may believe that a workable agreement is still possible. Below are some techniques to get negotiations moving.

Always remember: The goal isn't to overcome impasse per se, but to help the Parties analyze and negotiate constructively. The Parties are free to stick with a position -- there may be a legitimate reason for impasse, and it's not your job to pressure the Parties into a settlement!

1. Take a break. Often, things have a way of looking different when you return.

2. Ask the Parties if they agree to set the issue aside temporarily and go on to something else - preferably an easier issue.

3. Ask the Parties to explain their perspectives on why they appear to be at an impasse. Sometimes, the Parties need to feel and focus consciously on their deadlock.

4. Ask the Parties, "what would you like to do next?" and pause expectantly. Or, say "frankly, it looks like we're really stuck on this issue. What do you think we should do?" These questions help the Parties actively share the burden of the impasse.

5. Ask each Party to describe his/her fears (but don't appear condescending and don't make them defensive).

6. Try a global summary of both Parties' sides and what they've said so far, "telescoping" the case so that the Parties can see the part they're stuck on in overall context. Sometimes, the impasse issue will then seem less important.

7. Restate all the areas they have agreed to so far, praise them for their work and accomplishments, and validate that they've come a long way. Then, ask something like: "do you want to let all that get away from you?"

8. Ask the Parties to focus on the ideal future; for example, ask each: "where would you like to be [concerning the matter in impasse] a year from now?" Follow the answers with questions about how they might get there.

9. Suggest a trial period or plan; e.g., "sometimes, folks will agree to try an approach for six months and then meet again to discuss how it's working."

10. Help the Parties define what they need by developing criteria for an acceptable outcome. Say: "before we focus on the outcome itself, would you like to try to define the qualities that any good outcome should have? "

11. Be a catalyst. Offer a "what if" that is only marginally realistic or even a little wild, just to see if the Parties' reactions gets them unstuck.

12. Offer a model. Say: "sometimes, we see Parties to this kind of dispute agree to something like the following . . . ."

13. Try role-reversal. Say: "if you were [the other Party], why do you think your proposal wouldn't be workable?" or "if you were [the other Party], why would you accept your proposal?"

14. Another role-reversal technique is to ask each Party to briefly assume the other's role and then react to the impasse issue. You also can ask each Party to be a "devil’s advocate" and argue against their own position.

15. Ask the Parties if they would like to try an exercise to ensure they understand each other's position before mediation ends. Ask Party A to state his/her position and why, ask Party B to repeat what B heard, and then ask A if B's repetition is accurate. Repeat for B. Listen and look for opportunities to clarify.

16. Ask: "what would you be willing to offer if [the other Party] agreed to accept your proposal?"

17. Use reality-checking. For example, "what do you think will happen if this goes to court?" Draw out the emotional, financial, and other costs of litigation and delay.

18. If all else fails, suggest (or threaten) ending the mediation. Parties who have invested in the mediation often won't want it to fail, and may suddenly come unstuck. This approach is useful where one Party may be hanging on because he/she enjoys the attention the process provides, or enjoys the other Party's discomfort.


From the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) and Mediation web site.

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Additional articles by Jim Melamed