Strategies for Breaking Impasse

By Victoria Pynchon, Joseph Kraynak

When neither party is willing to make another concession to reach agreement, they are at impasse. To help break through impasse, a mediator should consider using one or more of the following strategies:

  • Ask diagnostic questions. Ask questions like, “What do you believe would be the best solution for everyone?” or, “What could your opponent do to signal progress?”

  • Bracket your way to compromise. Ask each party, “If the other party were to offer _____, would you be willing to offer _____ in return?” This approach often helps a party move into the range of reason without requiring the other party to move there first.

  • Encourage a party to make a concession and the other party to reciprocate. When you name the concessions the parties have made and recite the reciprocal moves by the other, the parties feel more satisfied about the progress they’re making and more hopeful about their ability to close the deal.

  • Perform a cost-benefit analysis. Calculate the costs and benefits of any proposed solution as compared to the costs and benefits of the parties’ failure to reach agreement.

  • Reframe the possible outcomes. When a party refuses to make further concessions, to save face or avoid the impression that he’s lost, reframe the resolution from loss to victory by stressing, for instance, that resolution is control over the conflict.

  • Soften a hard offer or demand. Ask diagnostic questions to learn the reasons why a party refuses to make further concessions or is standing by an unreasonable offer or demand. Explaining the reasons for one party’s intractability to her bargaining partner can soften what seems to be a hostile or unnecessarily adversarial position.

  • Use a decision tree. Draw a flow chart illustrating the possible outcomes of the choices the parties have.