Recently I mediated a conflict involving an organization and two of its members. At stake was the continuation or severance of their long-standing relationship. After full and frank negotiation around a proposal and counterproposal developed during joint sessions and private caucuses, the parties declared they were exhausted, and had exhausted all possible solutions. The mediation ended without resolution.
During the days immediately following the session, I reflected on the process as it had unfolded and asked myself what I could have done differently to help the parties find common ground. Then I realized I was asking myself the wrong question. Success in this case wasn’t necessarily to be measured by reaching a mutually amicable agreement. I reframed the question to ask whether the process had done anything positive for the parties.
First, they agreed to abandon their separate pre-conditions for participation. I had persuaded them that mediation offered an opportunity to express the concerns underlying their asserted pre-conditions. They sat down together and engaged in respectful, civil conversation. This was the first time that had occurred since the conflict arose over three years ago. That period had been punctuated by increasingly angry email exchanges and shouting matches.
Second, they listened closely to each others’ respective viewpoints. They tolerated exchanges which were heated, blunt, and sometimes painful. They allowed themselves to be vulnerable in front of each other. Consequently, everyone had a chance to be heard and to engage in genuine dialogue.
Third, the parties left mediation with a clear sense of the best and worst alternatives facing each of them going forward. Put another way, although positions had not yielded to interests, the parties gained what had been lacking before: a realistic understanding of their different perspectives and of each others’ human imperfections.
So, did this mediation fail, or not?