by Hansol Choi
We have all been there before: we are in what initially begins as a friendly discourse with someone
when all of a sudden, we find ourselves in the heat of an impasse about a disagreement that seems to
have lodged itself right between us and the other party. As the conversation transforms into an
argument before our very eyes, the disagreeing positions from both parties clash in the air like flying
arrows, and our feelings suffer as collateral damage from the growing conflict in what seems like an
impossible scenario: when an irresistible force meets the inevitable immovable object. What do you do?
As mediators, we try our very best to prevent impasse from taking place during the development of the
case. The hostile environment that ensues when both parties convey a mutual desire of antagonism
toward each other can be a stressful red herring from the focus of the mediation – resolution.
However, we do recognize that as difficult as they can be, impasses are not synonymous with failure; in
fact, an impasse can be an opportunity in disguise, as the seeming roadblock pushes the mediators to
think beyond the boundaries of the situation to bring the parties back into a position of resolving the
case. Sometimes, this may require using the strategy of reality checks. This is a useful tool to utilize
when the mediator recognizes that the disputants have constricted their vision from the grand picture
of the situation into a narrow focus of just one detail.
In one particular case I am currently working on, I found myself stuck in a situation where both parties
adamantly refused to move from their positions. Party 1 firmly believed that Party 2 had performed
malpractice services and did not want to make any further payments. Party 2 on the other hand,
expected a full payment of the services rendered and did not agree with the malpractice claim made by
Party 1. During the duration of a month, neither party could be convinced from their positions: we were
stuck in an impasse. As a mediator, I have found that in situations like these, it would not be conducive
to the resolution if we continued to push for an alignment of the two different perspectives. Instead, the
mediator must shift the focus away from the roadblock. The strategy I employed in this particular case
began with carefully crafted questions of self-reflection to each party, followed by possible
consequences that are likely to arise if the disputants continued to refuse to disengage from the
impasse: first, I made sure to maintain rapport with the parties by fully listening to each respective
account; then, I began the reality check by asking guided questions that would help the parties think
about the responsibility of their actions – did they maintain communication during the escalation of the
dispute? Had they directly contacted the other party? Finally, I reminded each of the parties of the
options that were available to the other should they fail in mediation, followed by the incentives of
pushing forward toward a resolution past the current impasse, should they succeed.
This strategy may not work in all cases of impasse, but I have found it of much help in this particular
case. As mediators, I have realized that it is important to always remain in control of the process, as the
content of the case may shift when different facts are brought to light. We also have to accept that the
details of facts from each party will never align with one another due to differing perspectives. However,
as long as we remain firm in managing the process of the mediation, through an impasse or not, we will
be of most help to the disputants in guiding them out of the woods of the conflict into the light of the
resolution so that they can move forward with their life.