I’m betting that most of us who work in conflict resolution, whether formally as a neutral or informally in our roles within our organizations, know well a certain sinking feeling. That is, when the people involved have had a good dialogue and worked hard to come together and yet seem to balk just when a resolution is in sight. The resolution is still redeemable in many cases but in others, that little hesitation can be like the thread which, once pulled, unravels the whole thing. So, what’s that about?
When the parties sit down to engage in a dialogue about their conflict, their behaviors tell a story about why they may have avoided or not resolved the conflict in the first place and what might make it hard for them to face real and viable solutions that they say they want. The root of these behaviors can often be:

Doubt from past experience. Many times parties in conflict will express serious doubt that anything will or should be accomplished in mediation or dialogue because past experiences have eroded their trust. They might say… “He knows what’s been happening and always says he’ll do something, but he never does.” or “I gave her another day of telework because of her situation but I could never find her when I needed to.”

Hesitancy or a lack of confidence. When the parties are not clear on what they want or have the right to ask for, their ability to trust the offer from the other party may be compromised. They might say… “This is my one shot. What if I make the wrong deal?” or “If I offer a reassignment, then everyone will want one.”

Fear, anger or hurt. These emotions, so often present in disputes, affect how the parties engage and ultimately move toward resolution. Fearful parties may be hard to draw out. Anger often affects how well parties can hear and interpret what is being said and how they express their own stories and interests. Hurt from painful experiences can cause parties to filter, and sometimes distort, the dialogue through an outer defensive shell.

Ineffective communication. Varying levels of communication skills may make it difficult for parties to engage in a mutual exchange, cause the parties to fall into habits of expressing emotions more than interests or curiosity, and aggravate their discomfort about the dialogue process and confidence in possible outcomes.

Physical distress. Whether from the dispute, the stress of the dialogue process, or other factors, parties showing tensions in their faces or bodies can find it very difficult to engage with optimism. The tension can also be telegraphed to the other parties and affect the dynamic in the room.

The behaviors from the parties give us cues about what will be most important in their ability to fully engage and work toward a resolution. As conflict resolvers, there are many ways we can guide our process to meet the parties’ needs. Here are a few approaches commonly used in mediation:

• Setting a good tone and making clear how a dialogue will take place can lessen physical and psychological stressors. This might mean taking a little extra time in the beginning and conveying calm and competent authority over the process so that parties can put their trust in the conflict resolver.

• Using separate sessions and letting parties know they can request to meet in separate sessions. This can help parties feel more confident in their ability to explore and get help in expressing their concerns and needs.

• Recognizing the level of emotion and what it communicates about whether and how emotions must be acknowledged before parties can move on. This may also require more time in the mediation or dialogue and may mean that the parties circle back to cover previously-covered territory to build their confidence so they can let go of emotions that are blocking them.

As conflict resolvers our ability to recognize those behavioral cues from the parties holds the key to helping the parties engage in their conflict and come together around real and durable resolutions.

Dianne C. Lipsey