Surprises in mediation can be a good thing

As a mediator or facilitator, its easy to feel you’re in total control of the process.  Don’t hold that thought too tight though!  Sometimes, giving co-ownership of the process, over to the people in conflict, can lead to surprising results.  It doesn’t matter if it was your intention or it happens spontaneously, letting go can be a good thing.

Surprises for the better

Here’s a few examples, from mediations I conducted, of me getting surprised:

  • The background documents to the dispute, provided by one of the disputants, read like a novel.  In the mediation itself, first words from the disputant/author are my anger has subsided since filing this claim (re: writing the novel!).  Settlement follows quickly. Nice!It’s a complex, multi-party, community dispute.  One of the disputants repeatedly insists on distributing a document to everybody.  I resist, thinking it will only add fuel to fire.  After the mediation ends (successfully), the disputant shares the document with me, it’s a beautiful, personal poem/story about how things could be different for all those involved in the dispute – a gift.  I run the gamut of emotions after this little discovery!  Obviously the idea of settlement was there, way before I entered the picture!
  • One of the parties didn’t show up for the mediation.  With the attending party and their counsel present, we try contact the other party.  No answer.  Counsel suggests calling another number. We do.  No answer.  We call someone else in the know and finally track the other party down by phone.  Mediation conducted.  Settlement happens.  Who knew counsel could be so helpful!
  • The parties in dispute are unable to agree on a settlement price.  One party suggests a coin flip, with the party losing the toss to pay the difference.  Other party agrees.  Party suggesting the flip loses the toss, yet is pleased with the outcome.  Go figure!
  • Mediation gets off to rocky start.  Emotions are high.  One of the disputants all of a sudden says to their adversary, Let me move around to your side of the table so I can sit beside you, and let’s see if we can work this out together? They do!

A few takeaways

Appreciate each person as unique. We all need appreciation, even those who are teaching the value of appreciation.

Be curious and open to what someone in a dispute has to share; e.g., generosity, creativity, authenticity, intelligence, willingness to work and don’t forget humour.  The need for curiosity aligns with an earlier post I wrote about cross-cultural work, and the need to acknowledge your thoughts, then say “hello”.

Some days being a mediator is mostly about stepping back and getting out of the disputant’s way.

There are other kinds of surprises, of course – the not so pleasant types of surprises.  Another day for those, though!

How were you positively surprised in a mediation or facilitation?

If you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving a comment or subscribing to my blog. Thanks, Ben.

Photo Credit: Kevin Lawver


  1. Ben, thanks so much for linking to my post on humor in negotiation. It’s much appreciated!


  2. Ben Ziegler says

    Hi Diane, I was reminded of your post in a mediation/negotiation I facilitated today – and I smiled. Cheers, Ben.

  3. Deborah Denson says

    I loved reading your first “surprise.” Your experience mirrors mine and feeds my interest in the psychology of conflict. In my practice of Nonviolent Communication, I have seen the magic happen. It is almost like dealing with two different people – before and after the emotions are processed.
    Thanks for sharing, Deborah

  4. Thanks Deborah. Good of you to mention NVC. I’m a fan of it. Once attended a talk by Marshall Rosenberg – the talk was in the context of a parenting skills conference, yet his ideas resonate way beyond that of course. And your comment about the before and after underscores the many common values between mediation and NVC.

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