Mediation: The Objective Balance of Forces?

Part of our mediation offering is support for people interested in learning about mediation and negotiation technique.

We have one roleplay based on an attempt to reach a deal over an education initiative in an imagined developing country. The Minister, an NGO, a UN organisation and a major international corporation all have things to offer, things they want and outcomes they don’t want. How best to present themselves in the meeting and so steer the meeting to a positive outcome?

The fascinating thing about such roleplays is that they do not need to be ‘realistic’. People taking part behave in ways that has all sorts of real-life resonance.

Some talk too much, or get sidetracked into detail, or don’t say what they need to say. The chair of the meeting either grips the event from the start, or doesn’t. People start to put annoying words into the mouths of other people. Some people say almost nothing – but by saying nothing cleverly manoeuvre the discussion towards the outcome they want.

Most remarkably of all, the simple arrangement of the chairs around the table can have a dramatic influence on the way the different parties communicate and so affect the final result.

It is always especially interesting in discussion afterwards to hear how different people interpret the strengths and weaknesses of their roles in the scenario. One side has had little to offer, but has made up for it by being confident and assertive. Another side has ‘felt’ weak without exploring whether the other parties may feel even weaker, and so been unnecessarily reticent and less effective.

In short, the obvious balance of forces and resources is rarely enough to determine the outcome – the subjective psychology and tactics play a huge part.

Conclusion? The skilled mediator needs to listen astutely to what other people are saying. When they’re speaking – and when they are staying silent.

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