Too Hot to Handle!

Someone once gave me a cup holder with the words ‘Joe Bloggs never mediates anything too hot to handle!’ Well apart from my usual distaste for American glitch it got me thinking what sorts of disputes we might not wish to handle. Therefore Joe Bloggs might have been telling a few porkies if there was something that he ought not to accept. We all like challenges and there is hardly a mediator I know who is a shrinking violet when it comes to saying ‘nay thank you’. So what guidelines should I give?

I start from the premise that parties always should be willing to negotiate no matter how awful the other side may seem in the eyes of the first. We have seen what I call seemingly intractable disputes (what Peter Coleman in his book calls the 5% – Finding solutions to seemingly impossible conflicts). Well we have all seen how parties tend to demonise each other, and far too often one is left wondering how the hell two or more perfectly normal level headed and seemingly nice people got thus far. Maybe it is that demonization which takes them beyond the pale so that in the mind of the other they become untouchable and far too irrational to sit around the table doing deals with in a mediation. Take for example a mediation I recently did between two brothers both farmers and farmers of the same jointly owned farm. Incredible though it might seem, neither had actually spoken to the other since 1988. You need to take it back to the play pen almost to see how the dispute might have developed, with the parents doing something that perhaps acted as the trigger point. Anyway the real bone of contention wasn’t the 400 odd acres which ultimately were easily dividable; but it was a small patch of ground known as the ‘pound’ that in times gone by had been used as a village pillory. That little piece of ground owned by brother B was in brother A’s garden. Giving it up meant giving up control that B might have in the future over his elder brother. Suffice to say they did meet and they did talk about uncontentious things leaving the nitty gritty stuff to be dealt with elsewhere.

My point is that time is both the great healer and also the receptacle of greater memories of hurts long gone by but not forgotten or forgiven. I suppose they were within the 5% that Coleman talks about. It’s worthwhile remembering five basic questions that are useful for most conflicts :

· What are A and B’s interests?

· What are both their alternatives to negotiation?

· Would a deal satisfy both parties interests better than those alternatives to negotiation?

· What are the costs implications of negotiating or not negotiating?

· If they reach some sort of deal what would be the prospect of it being implemented?

So even in the most intractable self-perpetuating disputes like that between Israelis and Palestinians there is a golden rule never say no to the opportunity of negotiating as the answers to these questions shouldn’t be looked at negatively because the other side are perceived as so awful that nothing agreed will be implemented anyway. The alternative just isn’t worth thinking about and won’t satisfy those base line interests – unless your principles are akin to those of Isis. I may dwell a little on this theme of being too hot to handle during my forthcoming trip to Israel and Palestine or Judea and Samaria or Land of Caanan – whoever thought history wasn’t complicated!

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