Mediation is often considered the best option to work out a conflict and salvage a relationship. When entering into a mediation, one hopes that a magic wand is waved and the problem is identified and resolved. Sometimes things work out just like this. It takes hard work and perseverance but it is possible to completely reverse the damage and come out stronger on the other end. This is the ultimate goal of mediation. But what happens when the problem doesn't get resolved?
We tried but....
Sometimes mediations do not get the results the participants hope. This may happen for many reasons:
- Unrealistic expectations: This can be a big deal. If parties enter a mediation with incomplete or exaggerated expectations about how the process works or what is expected of them, it can sabotage an entire mediation.
- Unwillingness of parties to fully participate (it does take a lot of raw effort). All parties have to be willing to engage. It doesn't work to only have one side participating. This leads to a terrible power imbalance, which may be a large part of the conflict already.
- Unwillingness of parties to be open to another side of the story. Sometimes people want to hold on to their beliefs even in the face of new information that might challenge those beliefs. They have become entrenched and attached to their side of the issue. If they are unwilling to be open to new information, the mediation doesn't stand a chance.
- Choosing to not forgive — holding onto past grievances as if they were a security blanket. Many people take great comfort in their outrage — it has become part of their identity and asking them to give it up feels like an impossibility. Forgiveness is a major component to mediation, and an inability to move on holds the participants rooted in their conflict.
- Inexperience of mediator. Not all mediators are the right fit for all situations. If participants feel that they didn't reach a resolution because the mediator was the wrong fit, find another mediator (and recognize that agreeing that the mediator was not right is actually a step toward building consensus about other issues!
How do you know when to stop?
The questions to ask are:
- Did we try everything? Was there anything left out that was not examined as a potential resolution? If there was something that was not brought up — get it out there. If there are issues that the parties refuse to discuss, that is an indication that the real problems are being avoided. Problems cannot be resolved if they cannot be discussed.
- Were we actually solving the correct problem? If the issue seems to be one thing but the discussions are focused on a completely different incident or situation, are you actually solving the right issue?
- Have there been any minor successful agreements during the mediation upon which to build bigger agreements? It may be that these small agreements are the first steps and you need to wait and let them be tested and trusted before you move to a more difficult issue.
Chances are if you ask those questions you may find some wiggle room to continue the mediation in some shape or form. However, if both parties feel that they tried everything, they were working on the right issues, the mediator was skillful and they are still not able to come to a resolution, that in and of itself is a resolution.
Sometimes, the answer is "no"
There comes a point when the parties may decide that mediation is no longer an option. This is of course the less desired outcome, but just going through the process of mediation and making every effort to resolve a conflict is a victory in and of itself.
There are no magic wands, mediation takes hard work and emotional commitment. The process of mediation itself will help clarify the issues and each individuals' stance. It removes the ambiguity of what the conflict is, and how the participants feel. A mediation that results in no resolution is a mediation that points the participants in another direction.