I recently mediated a dispute over money either borrowed (according to one party) or gifted (according to the other party). While nominally the dispute was about money, as is true so often, the underlying conflict was personal. Through opening statements, it became clear that what the parties most needed was a safe forum to express the pain they’d experienced and offer sincere apologies for the pain they’d caused. Given the need for direct communication, we never broke to caucus, but remained in joint session. It was heartfelt, emotional and poignant throughout.
So where does the pause come in? I’ll tell you. After a couple of hours of dialog, the parties reached an impasse. We had already tackled several really big issues – both good (gratitude, appreciation and recognition) and bad (deception, betrayal and loss). And we gotten very, very close on the money. Then we hit the impasse. There were no more emotional issues to explore or apologies to give or receive, which was good. But on the topic of money, the parties were $250 apart and stuck. (Yes, you read that right — $250.) Each was emotionally spent. Each felt they’d given all they could. Neither was going to budge.
That is when I called a timeout. It was apparent that neither party wanted to go to trial anymore and that each party was ready to close this chapter in their life, but they were too spent to be able to bridge the $250 gap to get to closure. We sat in silence for a few minutes and then I announced that we were going to take a 10 minute break. I asked both parties to step out into the hallway. I reminded them where to get refreshments and find the restroom. I told them that I’d return for them in 10 minutes. Then I left them alone. In the hallway.
Ten minutes later, I returned and brought them back together. The ice broke quickly. They agreed to split the difference on the $250 and put this behind them. By the time we’d documented the settlement, they were even smiling again.
Lesson learned? While there is certainly power in a sincere apology, often an apology must be combined with a pause to allow the recipient to accept the apology, embrace it and adjust their perspective accordingly. Moreover, this opportunity to reflect, evaluate and adapt is valuable in other types of disputes too. I’ve used it many times to empower parties to consider their situation and then exercise their self determination to settle. While I’ve often used the technique, I didn’t recognize it as the power of a pause. But now, when I think about my mediator’s toolbox, I see one more separate and distinct tool – a pause button. Sometimes a pause is all you need.
4 FEB 2015