Separate the Person from the Problem

Mediation Minute

Work with the People to Solve the Problem

When approaching mediation, parties need to work together to tackle the problem, not each other. The goal is to be soft on the people and hard on the problem. Failing to interact with the other party sensitively, can be catastrophic to building or maintaining a working relationship. Knowing the other side personally helps to build cordiality. Find ways to meet them informally before the negotiation, arrive early to chat or linger afterwards.

To solve issues with the opposing party, before the negotiations begin, identify and address people related problems in three categories:

  1. Perception
  2. Emotion
  3. Communication


The biggest barriers to resolving conflict are often found in the parties’ heads. To resolve conflict, you must first understand why the conflict began and what the perception of the opposing party is. To understand another party’s reality, you must understand the depth and power of their perceptions. Understanding the other sides’ reality helps to open the path to a real solution. This will help you to build a foundation for communication and allow you to look for opportunities to act consistently with the other party’s negative perceptions.  Be a good listener.


Conflict can bring out the worst in people and emotions often run high. Emotions are real and powerful, but left unchecked can be a huge barrier to resolution. For example, fear and anger, even if ill-founded, are still genuine and commanding emotions, which need to be addressed before attempting reconciliation. Prior to beginning a negotiation, consider and try to understand the emotions fueling either side.  Once in the negotiation, recognize and acknowledge that the other party’s emotions are legitimate and do not be dismissive. Just because something is not important to you, does not mean it is not important to them. It will be almost impossible to negotiate if the other side is disrespected.  If necessary, allow the other party to blow off steam.  However, you should remember to not react emotionally.  Often the mediator allows a party to vent their emotions. 


As many people will tell you the key to any relationship is communication, communication, communication. It is especially important when resolving conflict. Resolving conflict requires both parties to listen and to share, in an attempt to come to an understanding. The steps for communication, although basic, are incredibly important.

First, pay close attention and listen to what is said or not said. Second, acknowledge what is said. Third, paraphrase your understanding of what they said to ensure you are on the same page. If you are not on the same page, ask the other party to clarify their statement. This does not mean you have to agree about what is said, but just that you understand what they believe or feel. As said before, you want to make sure you understand their perception.  This is referred to as looping.

When it is your time to speak, speak to the other party. Do not speak to a hypothetical third party decision-maker. In every statement speak with the purpose to try to genuinely resolve the issue person to person. In order to communicate in a constructive way, speak about yourself and not about the other party. Use “I feel” or “it is our impression” statements. It is difficult to challenge a statement about yourself. Don’t blame the other side for your problem, they will become defensive and communication will break down or be shifted away from the main issue.

In mediation, all of this communication can be important in an opening session. If this takes place, it is important not to antagonize or lecture.