We’ve all been stuck at an impasse.  Co-workers who refuse an additional responsibility, teenagers who won’t respect a curfew, spouses who “forget” to mention use of the debit card, are just a few typical examples.  There are global examples of impasse, too.  Take a look at United Kingdom’s potential exit from the European Union.  Or, closer to home, the current government shut-down.  Impasse is a common occurrence.  That’s why Mediators have tools to help people who are stuck.

Are you the stubborn one or are you the one who caves at the first sign of a conflict?  I am both, depending on what’s at stake.  It’s important to recognize when you’re in the heat of the moment and try to take a step back.  Makes sense to avoid reacting in anger, right?.  Instead, take a moment to figure out what you have in common rather than what’s dividing you.  Then schedule a time to revisit the impasse.

When you get back together, start by restating what you think is the other person’s position.  “Son, I know you think 16 is virtually an adult and that you don’t have to be home by midnight.”  Then ask your impasse-partner to repeat his/her understanding of your position. “Mom, I know you can’t fall asleep until I’m home safely.”   Assuming that you correctly understand each other, but you’re firmly attached to your own point of view, here are a few ideas on how to break the impasse:

  1. Suggest that you each provide a couple of alternate proposals.  Write down Plans B and C, and then exchange your notes.
  2. Talk about what you would be willing to offer in exchange for accepting the other party’s proposal.
  3. Suggest a trial period and then revisit.
  4. Try a role-reversal.  Pretend for a moment that you’re in the other person’s shoes, and vice-versa.  What would you say?
  5. At the end of the day, remember that sometimes it’s okay to let the other guy be right.

In real-life examples from my divorce mediation files, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to resolving an impasse.  I’ve had success with the concept of alternate proposals when neither (or both) parties want to keep their timeshare.  Sometimes there is an offer of exchange involved:  “Okay, you can keep the Maserati, but then I will keep the dog and the cat.”   I’m also a believer in the “try it for six months” concept.  If it’s working, then keep on keeping on, but if not, try something else.  And once in awhile, I’ve asked clients to literally switch seats and speak in the other’s voice.  It not only works as a tension-breaker, but it helps them see that the other’s position is actually sensible.  Or ridiculous.

And finally, I ask how important is it to be right?  When the relationship must continue regardless of the impasse, I encourage my clients to look at the bigger picture.  Is the issue at hand going to matter in a month?  Six months?  A year?  If not, then maybe, just maybe, it’s for the greater good to let it go.