Workplace Mediation -- Discussing Failure

A workplace mediation begins with introductions, reviewing common interests and writing the problem statement. Question: should that initial opening include a participant discussion about what happens if their mediation fails?

Years ago, during my opening remarks, I added a review of what the risks of a failed mediation meant to each party. I began to realize that these few minutes were not only an eye-opener for the parties but also of incredible value to me as the mediator.

Today, I always board the stated "risks of failure" on a flip chart. And I leave that flip chart page taped up on a wall within easy view. (It is interesting to note that the risks of a failed mediation are not returned to very often during the day. But that list remains in sight.)

And there is a group dynamic you can expect. Often dead silence is the initial response to the question of potential failure. People begin to stare at their shoes or to fuss with their pens and their notes. However, the blank "risk of failure" flip chart page remains in front of them. And inevitably the participants begin to share their concerns about not succeeding. More often than not the parties discover that they have common ground for attaining a good outcome. And this early acknowledgement becomes the segue into other mutual interests and goals.

I have been told that a discussion of failure is anathema to a mediation setting that is designed to be positive, forward looking and hopeful. And I realize that at first glance this might seem so. However, particularly with participants that have a strong tendency toward resisting new options, the consideration of possible failure is, in my estimation, a must.

Because while some participants might not mind seeing a meeting fail, no one wants to fail personally. And that is part of the joy of workplace mediation!


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 400,000 readers. He and Mediation Resolves focus on eliminating formal employee complaints, avoiding internal relationship disputes, preventing grievance backlogs, and restarting stalled labor negotiations.