As a parent I'm certainly familiar with the strategy of sending two children to an early bed rather than listen to their bickering any more. [Sorry, guys, what I meant was that I was familiar with that strategy fifteen years ago]. And certainly it worked as a means of settling their disagreements even if it was by creating a common enemy - me.
But the idea of a professional mediator doing this deliberately is rather startling, and certainly at odds with conventional mediator skills training which promotes rapport building and demonstrable empathy.
However, recent research published in Scientific American implies that we should try it. In their experiment, the conventionally nice mediators sent a message to both parties saying something like “Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. I hope this was helpful to the both of you.” But those tasked to be less affable went with the more abrasive “Now that the two of you have sufficiently wasted my time, I’m relieved I don’t have to hear more about your problems again”. Yet surprisingly the hostile mediators got parties to agreement in 85% of cases whereas the nice guys only managed 59%.
So does this mean that conventional theory about rapport building should be thrown out the window? I don't think so. Because the idea of uniting people behind dislike of a common enemy is a politician's trick that's as old as the hills, but it's a strategy based on distraction rather than resolution. So I can see that it may work in the laboratory environment of role play and manufactured conflict but, in the real world of genuine disagreement, I'm sure that getting parties to dislike me isn't going to work, just as getting them to like me isn't going to work either if that's all I do. For commercial mediation is a tough process working with real business issues and hard-nosed negotiators, and organising a group hug usually isn't going to get me very far.
So I won't be telling parties that they have "wasted my time" though if anyone is minded to try it I'd be interested to hear how you get on. In the meantime, I'll carry on trying to built a platform of trust from which I can act as a coach, including asking the tough questions (but politely).
Graham Massie is a member of CEDR Chambers, a panel of highly experienced mediators with proven excellence in providing mediation, training and consultancy services to clients.
To book Graham as a mediator, contact the CEDR Commercial Team at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0207 536 6060.
to effectively help people resolve their conflicts, mediators should adopt a hostile attitude rather than a calming one. A hostile mediator, we find, induces better results than a nice one.