How to Build a Bridge between Parties

When you’re the mediator and the parties are stuck, you can help them build a golden bridge — instead of asking the party to move where she doesn’t want to go, you begin at the point where she is right now and help her build a bridge that will take her where she’s willing to end up.

Have you ever experienced a situation in which you were so focused on getting what you want that you completely lost the capacity to think rationally? Perhaps you tried for two hours to convince someone to come over to your place when you could’ve met the person at his place in 15 minutes. You wasted an hour and 45 minutes of your life because the other person took a hard-line position and you responded in kind.

A golden bridge helps the parties avoid the waste and frustration created by posturing, positioning, and arguing about matters that may not even be the point.

Following are techniques to build a golden bridge:

  • Start where the most recalcitrant party is.

  • Bring the other party over.

  • Build on the recalcitrant party’s ideas but don’t necessarily accept them.

  • Select the most constructive proposals and move them in a direction that can benefit both parties. You may say something like, “Building on your idea, what if we. . . .”

  • Ask for constructive feedback from one or both parties.

  • Ask about the interests that the suggested approach fails to satisfy and in what ways it can be improved.

  • Offer more than one choice.

  • Continue asking diagnostic questions to ascertain how the proposal toward which you’re building the bridge may more effectively satisfy unserved interests.

  • Suggest that the parties make hypothetical offers, such as, “If John is willing to put $25,000 on the table, what would you be willing to lower your demand to?”

In building a golden bridge, you help the parties discover their own solutions and craft an agreement that satisfies them both. If one of the parties is stuck in a position, you walk right on over to that position and start building.

Suppose one party from a divorced couple takes the position that “I’ll never let her take the kids for more than two weeks at a time, so her grand plan to take them to Europe for a month this summer is out of the question.” You can help the parties start building their golden bridge right from the former husband’s flat-out refusal:

  1. Start where Dad is but move the ball forward by reframing the negative in positive terms:

    “So you’re offering Mom two weeks with the kids this summer, right? That’s good.”

  2. Bring the other party (Mom, in this example) over to Dad’s side of the bridge:

    “Mom, you’d like to have at least two weeks with the kids this summer, right?”

  3. Ask the other party for constructive feedback:

    “So, Mom, if two weeks in Europe this summer were the only option, would it be possible?”

    This open-ended question probes for Mom’s interests and needs, both logistic and intangible. Mom may respond with something like this:

    “It’s possible, of course it’s possible, but the only reason I can afford the trip is because I have a week of business meetings in Milan. The kids want to see their grandmother in London, and our teenager, Jill, is dying to spend some time in Paris because she’s thinking of doing a semester abroad there for her junior year of college. She was hoping to have at least a week there before we move on to London.”

  4. Ask diagnostic questions and call for additional proposals:

    “Dad, what do you think about Jill’s desire to spend a week in Paris? Can you think of a way that Mom and the kids could spend time with Grandma in London and do the Paris week as well?”

    Dad may reply with something like the following:

    “Why doesn’t Mom leave the kids with her mother in London while she’s in Milan? Then they can spend the following week in Paris.”

This conversation can go in any number of directions. If expense turns out to be the real problem, Dad may offer to underwrite some of the trip later in the summer, after Mom’s business trip. Or Mom may be able to convince her mother to take the kids for a week in London and then meet them in Paris.

Or, if the logistical problem-solving process gets too complicated, Dad may give up his “my way or the highway” position and agree to a third week or even a fourth. Nobody has questioned Dad about why he’s adamant that the kids shouldn’t be gone for an entire month. If his feelings aren’t simply spite, you can invoke an entire problem-solving process for whatever obstacles Dad believes make Mom’s proposal a nonstarter.

This kind of bridge-building also allows the recalcitrant party to save face. As he engages in brainstorming, he can quietly let go of his hard-line position as it slowly slips away in the process of finding solutions to logistical problems. This process is slow but sure as you guide the parties step-by-step across the bridge they build as their own.

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