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When All Else Fails: Third-Party Negotiations

12 May, 2016 - 16:26

Alternative Dispute Resolution

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) includes mediation, arbitration, and other ways of resolving conflicts with the help of a specially trained, neutral third party without the need for a formal trial or hearing. Many companies find this effective in dealing with challenging problems. For example, Eastman Kodak Company added an alternative dispute resolution panel of internal employees to help them handle cases of perceived discrimination and hopefully stop a conflict from escalating.


In mediation, an outside third party (the mediator) enters the situation with the goal of assisting the parties in reaching an agreement. The mediator can facilitate, suggest, and recommend. The mediator works with both parties to reach a solution but does not represent either side. Rather, the mediator’s role is to help the parties share feelings, air and verify facts, exchange perceptions, and work toward agreements. Susan Podziba, a mediation expert, has helped get groups that sometimes have a hard time seeing the other side’s point of view to open up and talk to one another. Her work includes such groups as pro-choice and pro-life advocates, individuals from Israel and Palestine, as well as fishermen and environmentalists. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Mediation gives the parties the opportunity to discuss the issues raised in the charge, clear up misunderstandings, determine the underlying interests or concerns, find areas of agreement and, ultimately, to incorporate those areas of agreements into resolutions. A mediator does not resolve the charge or impose a decision on the parties. Instead, the mediator helps the parties to agree on a mutually acceptable resolution. The mediation process is strictly confidential.” One of the advantages of mediation is that the mediator helps the parties design their own solutions, including resolving issues that are important to both parties, not just the ones under specific dispute. Interestingly, sometimes mediation solves a conflict even if no resolution is reached. Here’s a quote from Avis Ridley-Thomas, the founder and administrator of the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Dispute Resolution Program, who explains, “Even if there is no agreement reached in mediation, people are happy that they engaged in the process. It often opens up the possibility for resolution in ways that people had not anticipated.” An independent survey showed 96% of all respondents and 91% of all charging parties who used mediation would use it again if offered.

You Know It's Time for a Mediator When...

  • The parties are unable to find a solution themselves.
  • Personal differences are standing in the way of a successful solution.
  • The parties have stopped talking with one another.
  • Obtaining a quick resolution is important.
Sources: Adapted from information in Crawley, J. (1994). Constructive conflict management. San Diego: Pfeiffer; Mache, K. (1990). Handbook of dispute resolution: Alternative dispute resolution in action. London: Routledge.


In contrast to mediation, in which parties work with the mediator to arrive at a solution, in arbitration the parties submit the dispute to the third-party arbitrator. It is the arbitrator who makes the final decision. The arbitrator is a neutral third party, but the decision made by the arbitrator is final (the decision is called the “award”). Awards are made in writing and are binding to the parties involved in the case. Arbitration is often used in union-management grievance conflicts.


It is common to see mediation followed by arbitration. An alternative technique is to follow the arbitration with mediation. The format of this conflict resolution approach is to have both sides formally make their cases before an arbitrator. The arbitrator then makes a decision and places it in a sealed envelope. Following this, the two parties work through mediation. If they are unable to reach an agreement on their own, the arbitration decisions become binding. Researchers using this technique found that it led to voluntary agreements between the two parties 71% of the time versus 50% for mediation followed by arbitration.


Negotiation consists of five phases that include investigation, determining your BATNA, presentation, bargaining, and closure. Different negotiation strategies include the distributive approach (fixed-pie approach) and the integrative approach (expanding-the-pie approach). Research shows that some common mistakes made during negotiations include accepting the first offer made, letting egos get in the way, having unrealistic expectations, getting overly emotional, and letting past negative outcomes affect the present ones. Third-party negotiators are sometimes needed when two sides cannot agree.


  1. What are the negotiation phases and what goes on during each of them?
  2. When negotiating, is establishing a BATNA important? Why or why not?
  3. What are the third-party conflict resolution options available?