Keep Changing The Subject! A Mediation Ploy

It happens more and more often. One mediation participant makes a comment that seems outrageous. Then as another person tries to respond, inform, or correct what was just said, the person making the original statement changes the subject and makes another grand and unrelated declaration.

Overwhelming a mediation discussion with an onslaught of disconnected, inflammatory, or off-the-subject remarks might be a conscious attempt to derail, disparage, and wear down others. More often, however, this type of approach is not planned. Instead it is the result of a history of personal grievances and unresolved complaints.

Regardless of why this distracting behavior happens, it is the mediator's responsibility to keep the focus of the discussion on the issue, or issues. It is clearly in the participants' best interests to discourage rapid fire, seemingly endless pivots that distract and disallow a resolution of the problem at hand.

A critical part of preparing for mediation is to generally define the problem to be addressed prior to the meeting. Next, as the meeting actually begins, the first goal of the agenda is to come to a general agreement on the issue. A well written problem statement is a high value reference when clarified at the outset.

A participant who creates constant drama, who dismisses the facts, or who belittles others' concerns should be allowed to do some venting and commenting. This can be cathartic in its own way and a mediator should not be overly directive. But a difficult personality must not dominate the mediation. Clearly, a constantly changing issue is unhealthy for problem solving.

How early do you slow down or stop distracting behavior? There is no single answer to that question that I know of -- other than to be aware that a successful mediation will be far more difficult to achieve if the mediator falls entirely silent.

I witness attempts to derail issues every day in public settings. As a result, I am keenly aware of the expectation of mediation participants that this ploy be stopped. Are these types of wandering outbursts more frequent today than in the recent past? I believe they are.


Thornton Mason is a national dispute resolution consultant and human relations mediator with 25 years of experience resolving over 1200 employee matters. His 60 Second Updates have a current reach of over 750,000 readers. He and Mediation Resolves focus on eliminating formal employee complaints, avoiding internal relationship disputes, preventing grievance backlogs, and restarting stalled labor negotiations.