When Impasse Occurs, Normalize it for the Parties.

Last Friday, I enjoyed an all-day mediation training entitled, Impasse-Breaking and Ethics: Tips, Tricks, Traps and Tools, by Sam Imperati. Sam used his playful demeanor to keep us engaged while he worked through his points. He made many points, too many even to categorize in this blog post. The one point I will emphasize is this: normalize impasse.

So what does “normalize impasse” mean? At several times throughout the day, Mr. Imperati counseled us to reassure the parties to negotiations that what they are going through is normal. Instead of being afraid of impasse before it occurs and frustrated by impasse when it happens, one should simply expect impasse as part of the process. In fact, experienced mediators welcome impasse as a necessary step, in “the dance.”

Sam articulates three points of impasse in a typical negotiation. The first is when neither party wants to be the first to present a realistic proposal: Plaintiff “demands” too much and defendant “offers” too little. Once both parties finally take the leap of faith into the realistic or “resolution zone,” then they, again, balk at getting to the narrower zone of where the deal will be struck.

A B C D E  F G H  I  J  K  L M N O

To illustrate this, Sam employed a grid that looks like a football sideline. Instead of numbers, he used letters from one “end zone” to the other of A through 0. The first impasse is the time when the parties hesitate to narrow the gap from between A and O to between C and M. Next, they stubbornly delay narrowing further to E and J. Finally, when they get to the true settlement range, which is between F and I, progress halts again.

The third impasse is less about money than about who feels like the “winner” and who feels like she or he “conceded.” At this point, both parties have narrowed the gap so much that it would be irrational to let resolution slip away. However, as we all know, emotions control negotiations of many disputes more than does mathematical calculation.

So, for me, of the 100 or so good points Mr. Imperati made during the day, MY take home point was (a) to counsel the parties to expect impasse, (b) let them know that what they are feeling is normal, and (c) then apply mediator tools to help them work through impasse toward resolution.

Jeff Merrick
Merrick Mediation
©March 12, 2011

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