Here is list of doís and don'ts for effective third-party intervention. The question of what creates and effective intervention is very broad and very context dependent. The weight to be given to these guidelines or rules will depend upon your read of the context of the dispute.




1. Be clear on your mandate.

As mediation is a consensual process, your mandate essentially comes from the parties. As I understand it, the federal government is funding the costs of mediation and the attendant meetings and no doubt has indicated their expectations of the process and given you some limitations on the resources at your disposal. At an early appropriate time, you should explain to the parties these expectations and limitations as candidly and transparently as possible, along with your "take" of them. Use the discussion that follows to clarify the mandate that each of the parties gives to the process. Negotiate any and all limitations on the mandate until you understand the motivation of the limitation, then let people know that circumstances may arise where that limitation needs to be re-examined to meet their overall objectives. Pay especial attention to any limitations on information disclosure and the participation of particular people and parties. These attempts to control the process naturally arise from the parties in the beginning of negotiation, greatly increasing the complexity of the negotiation and decreasing the potential for resolution.


2. Model effective negotiation.

The mediation begins when the first party arrives or you have your first discussions. You need to demonstrate these dos and don'ts, whatever the subject matter of that initial discussion. Opportunities to demonstrate your concern for understanding people's underlying motivations (interests), your respect for the individuals and organizations involved, and the involvement they can have in designing the process naturally arise in these first steps. How you negotiate these early minor or perhaps irrelevant matters, sets the tone and enacts your process template in the minds of the parties.


3. Be aware of bipolar thinking.

Negotiation is stressful and culturally modulated. In conflict circumstances, the parties naturally frame the dispute in terms of right or wrong, good or bad and villains or victims. The reality is always more complicated than these polarities indicate. Using terminology which denotes good and bad, inevitably leads to the judgment that the actor/person involved in the behaviour is good or bad. The challenge and your task is to shift those judgments into curiosity. Curiosity about how the behavior under consideration, made sense to the actor at the time and what their current intentions are. This especially applies to your own thinking.


4. Be as transparent as possible.

Disclose your motivations (interests), the limitations on your neutrality and role, and without blame, the difficulties and challenges you are facing. This will serve to model similar behavior in the parties, build trust with you concerning your motivations, and empower the parties to shift from a victim point of view to working to solve the current barriers. There will be occasions where such disclosure can be utilized by one of the parties for purposes of manipulation. You must do your best to anticipate those occasions and then limit your attempts at transparency. However, when in doubt choose transparency and expect the parties to rise to the higher motivations.


5. Treat the participants with respect.

Treating the parties with respect and understanding serves to separate the personal issues from the subject matter of the problem. Start with and model the principle that all behavior makes sense to the author of it and shift judgments about persons to curiosity about how their actions made sense to them. If you find that you are losing respect for a party, you are slipping into bipolar thinking. Be sure to take time out to check in with how you feel about each of the parties. This can help surface subtle changes that can get in your way of treating the participants with respect.


6. Pay attention to interests, not positions.

Parties typically come to mediation table focused upon their positions. Paying attention to their positions will foster bipolar thinking, increase the likelihood of disrespectful communications and increase the number of positions taken. Instead focus on the underlying motivations for their positions. This will model respect for parties, encourage transparency and minimize bipolar thinking.


7. Pay attention to rituals, symbols and story.

Paying attention to local and cultural rituals and symbols obviously models respect for the people involved. Metaphors are rich and economical windows into our worlds, that convey perspective, connection to our sensory nature and ambiguities that reality presents. However, be cautious about metaphors to sports or war as these will convey the perspective and sensation of winning and losing, thereby encouraging bipolar thinking and minimizing creativity.


8. Communicate with all the parties constantly.

When a party is not in the focus of mediation, such as when they are in a side meeting or waiting for the results of a side meeting, time passes very slowly and they will tend to resile back to their positions. Checking in with the party in that position demonstrates transparency and respect and also encourages their focus upon ways of moving forward.


9. Allow time for reporting back to constituencies/supporters.

An agreement reached with the parties at the table will not be effective if the player cannot induce their constituencies or supporters to follow. Allowing time for reporting back and for bringing forward other perspectives, helps constituencies and supporters to shift gradually. You can expect some hardening of positions in this process. It is very difficult to explain new perspectives to people outside the process, as their beginning bipolar perspectives have been hardened by being on the sidelines of the mediation.


10. Recognize how you are perceived on the drama triangle.

The drama triangle of victim, villain and hero is the dominant perspective in the early stages of conflict resolution. The parties all perceive themselves as victims of the others villainous conduct and no one accepts the role of villain. In this context, you enter the field as the perhaps unwanted, hero. Indeed, the rejection of your intervention may be the only point of commonality between the parties at certain points in the mediation. You have the choice of remaining on the drama triangle or attempting to shift the parties off the corners of the triangle into greater understanding. If you choose to remain in a role of hero, you become a party to conflict. You will then need to choose who will be the proverbial damsel in distress, by taking sides. This adopts a win-lose perspective. Then, in order to be successful in resolving the conflict, you must win so effectively that you monopolize the use of coercive force. Anything less, will perpetuate the conflict. If you cannot do this, then you cannot be the hero and your job becomes the shifting of the parties off the drama triangle. Victims display helplessness and powerlessness in an attempt to attract a hero. Encourage them to shift to more assertive approaches and have the courage to listen to the others' stories. Villains are seen to be aggressive and powerful. Encourage the accused villain to examine their own unheard feelings of victimization and to build understanding of the commonality of those feelings. Villains bring creativity and stamina, which can be redirected to the benefit of all in the conflict. Heroes are perceived to be powerful, courageous, and aggressive. In many ways, they are simply self-righteous villains. Heroes who cannot deliver a monopoly on coercive force are better off following this listing of dos and don'ts and thereby shift from the hero to the enabler.


11. Bring the perspective of the third side to the table.

Conflicts do not appear in a vacuum, affecting only those directly involved. There are always third sides, affected by the conflict, which do not have a voice at the table. Giving voice to these third perspectives helps to emphasize the broader impacts of the problem, depersonalizes the conflict, and helps to shift the parties off the drama triangle.





1. Donít claim neutrality or impartiality when you are not.

Absolute neutrality is unattainable, places you in a passive role, and creates suspicion. You at least have an interest in the effectiveness of the process and you usually have many more interests. Claiming neutrality in such circumstances affects the partiesí perception of your genuineness. It is best to disclose these interests early on to convey transparency, a focus upon interests, and as a way of decreasing suspicion.


2. Don't use coercive means unless you have overwhelming force and the stamina to implement the change you see as necessary.

Use of coercion emphasizes position taking, perceptions of the drama triangle, and the party's willingness to participate. Unless you have overwhelming force and the stamina to implement the change, your use of coercion will have only a limited run before position taking increases to untenable levels, your role as hero is rejected (probably by both parties) and some of parties withdraw from the mediation.


3. Don't accept secrets easily.

Carefully set up any rules concerning confidentiality between the mediation participants and the outside world as well as any limitations on your ability to convey information between subgroups within the mediation. Private information and secrets are a party's way of controlling the process. The mediation process should be controlled by no one, including yourself, although you have the lead in setting the example and guiding the selection of the process alternatives.


4. Don't pursue compromise.

There are five styles that people bring to conflict: denial, accommodation, competition, compromise, and collaboration. Denial and accommodation are typically untenable strategies at this stage, although they will still show up to certain extent. Competition between positions leading to bipolar thinking and placement on the drama triangle are typically evident. Pursuing compromise, reinforces positions, sets up a tit-for-tat expectation that is difficult to sustain and places the focus on present movement rather than the real history and the potential future of the conflict. Coming from a positional standpoint, the parties will naturally look to compromise as the way forward and be rightly discouraged by its potential for creating resolution. Your challenge is to shift perceptions from the positions to the underlying motivators of those positions, to set up a collaborative process for the participants to find a way forward.


5. Don't leave them waiting too long.

Inevitably, discussions occur within subgroups and take time. Time passes very slowly for those out of the focus of the mediator and the parties tend to resile to their positions while waiting. Keep checking in with each party and explain where you are in the process. This will serve to minimize suspicion and assumptions of bad intent from creeping in and will slow the resiling to positions.


6. Don't carry messages unless there is no other choice.

A message conveyed by one of the parties is almost always more effective in conveying their real intentions and difficulties. When you carry messages, the sending party is able to be more extreme. To facilitate these face to face exchanges, it can be helpful to arrange with the receiving party for the postponement of their reaction until after a period of separate consultation or reflection. This can allow the receiving party to reframe their defensive reaction to a more productive presentation and conveys respect for the work that went into constructing the message.


7. Don't oversimplify.

Reality is almost always more complex than simple statements of the problem. Simplification usually leads back to perceptions on the drama triangle. A summary of common, conflicting, and independent interests is usually preferable as it conveys the importance of the motivations of the parties and the potential of those interests to be attained.


8. Don't start with the end in mind.

Visualizing the way the negotiations will play out and the form the resolution will take, will lead you to positional, bipolar thinking and coercive means. In the midst of negotiations, it is important to remember that responsibility for choosing the way forward is up to the parties. They will probably have to be reminded of that. Having said that, it is also important to offer them the hope of a positive future, with the conflict already resolved. You may be the only one who can articulate that.


9. Don't let them get away without documenting the resolution.

Once the resolution is achieved, most do not want to settle the details of the agreement in the positive feelings of the moment. It is at this stage that quick work is required of you to settle those awkward details and to document them. If raised later, they become areas for suspicion and can give rise to accusations of bad faith. It is here where compromise functions well. Having settled the main set of issues, secondary objectives can usually be efficiently settled in a tit-for-tat compromise fashion.


10. Don't be hard on the people, be hard on the problem.

Often compromise driven processes put psychological pressure on the negotiators to resolve things by starving, exhausting, or isolating them. People usually have two or three compromise steps before they lose hope of resolution. Similarly, you can get a short distance by putting psychological pressure on the negotiators. However, Stockholm syndrome only lasts for a short time. As a dominant method for the whole mediation,compromise and pressure tactics rarely lead to resolution before aggravation and loss of hope sets in on the parties. Instead, focus on interests and tend to the physical and psychological needs of the parties. This demonstrates respect and builds commonality among the negotiators, increasing their stamina and humanizing their perceptions of each other.


11. Don't be afraid to break these rules.

Mediation is a creative people oriented process and because of that, generalizations cannot be absolute. These rules will help you avoid most of the problems. There will inevitably be situations where the opposite will be appropriate and necessary. Deviate from these rules, whenever you have a GOOD reason to do so.


[1] Copyright 2004, Terry Harris