Getting the Other Side to the Mediation Table

Tips on getting a quarrelsome or unresponsive opponent to sit down and be reasonable during conflict resolution.

Mediation may sound to you like a good, sensible way to resolve a dispute, but what if you're also convinced that your opponent is not sensible and is determined to prolong the dispute or fight things out in court? The good news is that, with a little help, you can probably get even an obstinate neighbor, a quarrelsome ex-spouse, or an unresponsive business owner to mediate.

If you've been ordered into mediation by a court (many family law and small claims courts send people to mediation before allowing them in a courtroom) or because the terms of a contract require it, you probably won't have too much trouble getting the other side into the mediation room.

However, most often if you get tangled in a serious dispute there will be no court to prod you into mediation. If you want to mediate, it will be up to you to get the process started.

Unless you know for a fact that the other side is willing to mediate, expect some reluctance. If the dispute has gone very far, the other person may almost automatically oppose anything you propose. Although you may be able to break through this resistance easily, sometimes it may not look promising. What then?

The best way to coax a reluctant party to mediate is to do it indirectly. Have a mediation organization -- not you -- extend the invitation to mediate. This means your first step is to find a mediation organization that is appropriate for your dispute. (Although individuals also offer mediation services, organizations are generally more skilled at getting people to the negotiating table.) Community mediation boards are usually appropriate for neighborhood and personal disputes. You can usually find organizations in the Yellow Pages devoted to the mediation specialties of divorce and business disputes.

After you find one or two organizations, call them and explain your situation. If one of them seems to be a good choice to work with you to get the mediation started, the next step is to write a short, polite letter to the other side explaining that you want to mediate and will be contacting a mediation service. Avoid saying anything that is likely to trigger a defensive response. Here are some suggestions:

  • State that you would like to try mediation and list some reasons why -- for example, because it's an efficient, low-cost, no-risk approach.
  • Don't try to persuade the other person to mediate. Leave it to the mediation organization to do the selling.
  • Never threaten the other person. For example, do not write, "If you don't agree to mediation, I will have no recourse but to file a lawsuit."
  • State clearly that you have no personal connection with the mediation organization other than contacting it for this mediation.
  • Let the other person know that the mediation service will be calling.

To Learn More

For an easy-to-use guide to the entire mediation process, get Mediate, Don't Litigate: Strategies for Successful Mediation, by Peter Lovenheim and Lisa Guerin (Nolo).

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