Thinking outside the pie: using mediation is no compromise

Think outside the pie with mediationYesterday I discussed an article on mediation that appeared in USA Today, dismayed by its depiction of mediation as a free service provided by volunteers.

But that was not the only problem that caught my attention. The article also quoted a critic of mediation who mistakenly charges that mediation “is a ‘terrible idea’ because it presumes the victim must accept some kind of compromise.”

Here is yet one more misapprehension that the public has about mediation – that the best outcome it can produce is compromise- a split-the-baby result that leaves all parties equally dissatisfied. This tells me that we mediators need to keep at it, countering and correcting these misunderstandings.

Let’s keep on getting the word out there that in mediation, disputants don’t just divide the pie, they can expand it. Ask yourself, is your negotiating style leaving value on the table? If so, you just might want to ask a mediator for help.

Meanwhile, maybe we mediators need a new motto – something along the lines of “We don’t compromise when it comes to helping you negotiate.”

6 responses to “Thinking outside the pie: using mediation is no compromise

  1. Diane,

    This was the reason I recommended Plous’s article on the arms race as required reading for a mediator.

    Plous discovered what he called a perceptual dilemma, a conflict in which both parties agree on what the best outcome is but because of strategic miscommunication settle for far less!

    A clear case of leaving value on the table.

    Although the perceptual dilemma was developed as a model for the arms race, the abstract model of the conflict readily expands to other conflicts.

  2. Good post, Diane – I remember a scene in one of the lawyer dramas some years back where teams from two firms were at the table trying to sell their services to a client. One team consisted of a group of frail-looking elderly men and urged a negotiation strategy. The handsome young chest-popping hero team looked askance at them and promised NO COMPROMISE! Of course, they got the job.

    What I’ve always emphasized is that the process needs to make sense in terms of achieving goals. If you decide it’s in your best interest to trade one good for another, that’s part of negotiating to get what you need. It isn’t the starting assumption that you have to give up anything. The popular idea of compromise – and sometimes of negotiating – is that you are sacrificing an ideal for something less – giving in, giving up, surrendering, weakness – all those associations seem unshakable. I sure don’t see a way of undoing that completely – except with one set of clients at a time.

    My best — John

  3. Well said, John – better than I did, certainly. By the way, those of you reading this – I encourage you to visit John’s excellent blog on public policy collaboration, Cross Collaborate, at You’ll see more examples of his superb writing.

  4. John Shaffer

    Hi Diane,

    It strikes me that we might be missing something here. The human value of conflict lies deeper, perhaps, than we realize. It’s satisfying to say “no compromise”, and mean it, when human values are at stake. Too often we give up principles to satisfy another human characteristic common to many of us…avoiding conflict, which can be distressing, time consuming, and expensive.

    When I have participated in exercises geared to measure personal preferences for responding to conflict (like Thomas Kilman Conflict Resolution Assessment Tool) it’s been clear many mediators tend to be conflict avoiders. If this personal observation is indicative of our collective preference then a bias exists that could be important to recognize and explore. Combat has its place and we may be weighing it too lightly.

    As always, thanks for keeping us on our toes. John

  5. John, you’re like the voice of conscience, pointing out what is sensible and wise. Thanks for inviting us to see things differently.

    I think you’ve made a good point…sometimes people do want to simply avoid or avert. But I want to make sure that regardless of where the stopping point is — whether it’s avoidance or compromise — that people have the opportunity to push the envelope – to recognize that pushing’s allowed. If at that point, they want to leave value on the table, so be it. It is their decision after all.

    There’s no doubt of course that our own feelings or ambivalence about conflict can affect how we practice as mediators. If we think that compromise is the best we can offer, then our practice follows accordingly. Mediator, know thyself. Maybe it’s time to retake that Thomas-Kilmann instrument?

    Thanks, John.

  6. John Shaffer


    Thanks for your reply. The value in the Thomas Kilmann tool, or others like it, is not only in identifying our own preferences but being reminded, as well, that there is a whole range of other approaches, each as valid as our own depending on personality and circumstances. “Value”, left on the table or otherwise, is not always easily identified, nor commonly imaged or defined. If we can learn to expand our ability to “play across the whole keyboard” of options available in our sessions, keying high notes, mid range or low notes as needed, we’ll ultimately serve our clients and process better…at least that’s the idea I’m wrestling with here. I suspect your thought about making sure “people have the opportunity to push the envelope” speaks to the same point. As always, thanks for the good work. John