Mediator Education Program

Impasse is a normal part of conflict.  Typically it is not the result of negative personalities or bad behavior.  Sometimes people only recognize their conflict when they reach impasse. Could their NO become YES to a mutually satisfactory agreement? 

When we talk about negotiations at an impasse the words we use convey our attitudes:  Standstill.  Deadlock.  Stuck.  Stalemate.  We use metaphors such as :   what  can we do to “break through the deadlock” or  “overcome the problem” ?

How can we be more effective in changing their NO to a YES?

Usually when we talk about impasse we are trying to figure out whether we are really at “the point at which further bargaining would be futile” *.  This definition in the Dictionary of Conflict Resolution (Douglas H. Yarn, ed.) applies to  impasse in a labour relations context and at the same time it  fits the wider perspective also.  

It is true that sometimes impasse is used as a negotiating tactic.  Tactical impasse occurs when at least one negotiator has chosen to be at an impasse for a reason that is seen by them as effective to advance their goals.    For example a negotiator may feel that reaching impasse is useful for them to put pressure on the other side to make concessions or in some other way to enhance their negotiating power.  It is a high-risk tactic.

Tactical impasse is contrasted with genuine impasse which occurs when one negotiator feels unable to move forward without losing something important.  If the impasse is genuine, the negotiator has good reasons for being at an impasse from their point of view.

As a mediator I find that whether the impasse is tactical or genuine, the strategies to help the parties find a way forward are similar.  The parties are at impasse because it meets the needs for at least one party to be there.  If it is a tactical impasse the shift out of impasse may happen more quickly. 

Moving through impasse is not helped by increasing the pressure.  Especially if the stakes are high, people tend to feel anxious and afraid.   This emotional response decreases the possibility for creative thinking.  The use of power by a mediator or another negotiator to threaten or try to coerce them is more likely to increase their resistance than help them find a way forward. Thus the overpowering approaches implied in the common metaphors can in fact hinder our effectiveness.

Here are some steps to successfully find a way through impasse.

1.   “Go to the balcony”:  The first step is to take a break.  Cool down.  Breathe.   Give yourself and them some space.  In the words of William Ury, “go to the balcony”  (Getting Past No:  Negotiating Your Way from Confrontation to Cooperation).  Before you take any action think about what is happening in the negotiation.

2.  Focus on Interests:     Interests are needs, the requirements which must be considered in reaching a satisfactory agreement.  (For more information about interests see Common Ground # 22 and # 28.)

 The usual interests we think about are those concerned with the substance or result of the negotiation.  All negotiators will also have procedural interests, such as, “I need to be involved in setting the date because of the implications for my business”  and psychological interests, such as, ”I need to feel that my ideas are valuable”. 

Think about whether their (and your) concerns are about the details of the deal or about process or psychological needs. 

 List the substantive, procedural and psychological interests of each negotiator.   I find it is helpful to actually write this down, even if you are one of the negotiators.  Then list the common interests, the interests shared by all negotiators.  Those common interests can be the leading edge of your way forward.

How is the impasse itself meeting the interests of the negotiators?  At the same time as there are benefits, it is likely that there are risks or costs for the negotiators in the impasse.  What are the ways that the impasse is not meeting their interests?  For example impasse may meet shorter term interests but not longer term.  If a negotiator has made strong statements that they will not agree to something unless the other side meets certain conditions, they create a need to save face by sticking with this even though changing what they would accept might suit their needs better. 

 3.  Listen to Them:   Listen to what they say as ifthey are genuinely interested in joining you to find a way through the impasse.  Don’t argue or resist.  Try to appreciate their interests so that you develop a full understanding of their substantive, procedural and psychological interests.  Accept what they say and probe it to see how this could help solve the problem.  “Help me understand your reasons for saying ‘no’ ”.   

Consider whether other people need to participate in the negotiations. 

Does the timeframe need to be shorter or longer?  Sometimes negotiators can agree on a short term plan as a temporary measure rather than reaching a final long term agreement. 

Should the negotiators’ interests be considered in greater or lesser depth?  For example common interests may be clearer when the needs are considered at a deeper level. 

What is it that needs to be decided?  Is there another way to frame the issue that they are negotiating about so they can consider it more constructively?  Maybe they can be more effective in deciding one constructive next step than an overall solution. 

How can previously expressed rigid statements be reframed to allow negotiators to soften their stance without losing face?  This is often one of the most important factors to help them move forward. 

Here are some questions that you could ask to understand a “no”:

    • What are your reasons for saying “no”?
    • How could we approach this differently?
    • What parts do you agree with?  Disagree with?
    • What would it take for us to reach an agreement?
    • If you could put together a deal that you think we could all accept, what would it look like?
    • What can we do to make that happen?

 4.  Solve the Problem TogetherThe negotiators need to work together to find their way through the impasse.    The mediator cannot “break the deadlock” for them.  Indeed if the mediator takes responsibility for fixing the impasse that may contribute to the problem.

After the parties have built a thorough understanding of interests it is time to consider how there might be genuine possibilities for joint gains, not just an ‘I win-You lose” outcome. 

Here are some ideas to consider before you walk away:

    • Clarify what each person’s needs are.
    • Have those needs been addressed?
    • Propose different ideas which address everyone’s concerns. 
    • Propose a different process for negotiating, such as using an external mediator. 

Another key is to consider objective criteria for assessing a fair outcome.  For example previously decided court cases of a similar type may help the negotiators to agree on an upper and lower limit as a step towards reaching a specific settlement amount.  

As the creative options are developed, the negotiators need to look at their alternatives realistically. 

While there are situations when impasse makes sense as a stopping point for negotiations, make sure that your impasse is not caused by running out of negotiation skill or creativity before accepting their NO as a NO. 

Impasse is where the effective negotiator does not give up, but digs deeper.  In the famous words of Yogi Berra, "It ain't over 'til it's over."




Mediator Education Program