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Impasses: Do All Pieces Need to Fit?

Impasses: Do All Pieces Need to Fit?

Author: Marlene Johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will be able to identify when there is truly an impasse.


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Impasses: Do ALL Pieces Need to Fit?

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The goal of conflict resolution is to work with parties on their conflict so that they address joint interests of all parties in a satisfactory way. This is the goal, but it's also a challenge, and sometimes it's hard to meet that challenge. I'm Marlene, and today I'd like to talk with you about what happens when parties reach an impasse.

So what is an impasse? An impasse is a situation where it appears the joint interests just can't be met, so we're at this impasse. Well, when that feels like it's what's happening, parties get frustrated. They feel angry, stuck, because when you're in an impasse, it does feel like you're really stuck. You're not moving.

So how do you address this? How do you find out, is this really an impasse, or are we just stuck for a while here and we have to maybe move back and revisit parts of the process in order to get through this? Well, as the intervenor, you need to check in with the parties if you sense that there is an impasse.

First of all, it could be an impasse over the entire conflict. The parties have gotten to a point where this is over. We don't want to work together. Forget it. So that would be one kind of impasse, the entire conflict. More commonly, it might be an impasse over one issue, one interest.

We've been working together here, and we've been making progress. Some things have been falling into place, but there is this one stickler, and we just can't seem to come to agreement here. So there is this one interest, or maybe it's two interests that we're stuck on. We've come to an impasse.

So as the intervenor, if you sense this is happening, it's important to check in with the parties. Now, this is an excellent time to use the private meeting as a way to check in. At the beginning of the conflict resolution process, you will have explained to the parties that you may call a private meeting or a caucus with one of them to check in on the process, to ask them if there's anything that they would like to disclose.

And they certainly have the opportunity to ask you for a private meeting as well. So during the private meeting when you meet with each party, you'll have an opportunity to ask that party about what is happening in the process, get their comments, their suggestions, and also find out, is there something perhaps that the party has not yet disclosed that is really vital to the resolution of this interest or this conflict that seems to be at an impasse.

So it'll give you an opportunity to do that with each party. If there is, then you speak with the party about the possibility of finding a way, perhaps, to bring this issue into the process so that you can move ahead and move through the impasse. So checking in with a private meeting is one way to check in.

You can also check in during the process itself by reflecting what you're sensing, by asking if there's something that they need or want to share with one another right there in the session. And you may find that it's just necessary to take a break, particularly if this is a complex and you've been working a long time on this conflict. It may mean that you just need to take a break.

People need to get away from this particular issue. And then you come back whenever people decide that it's comfortable to come back, and maybe you move on to something else. You don't revisit the issue right away. It's also important to reaffirm interests with the parties. That's another way of checking in.

Reaffirm their interests. Generate new options. And you may find out, and perhaps you find this out in the private meeting, or you may find it out in the process itself as the two parties begin to share what they are experiencing here. Perhaps there are other stakeholders involved. You're not moving forward because someone needs to be at the table that's not there.

Particularly in a longer more complex conflict you may discover this. Then of course you need to take a break, stop the process, and explore bringing in the other stakeholder. So that could be another reason there could possibly be an impasse. So you're going to talk with the parties about this, check in with them. They're probably wondering, is everything lost?

Here we are. We've been working for several sessions on this or however many you've been working. Is it lost? Well, if the impasse is truly an impasse on one interest here, one piece of the conflict, then it's important to explore with the parties if it's possible. Check in with them. Is it possible to come to a partial agreement here?

How about a partial solution? Remind them of their accomplishments, what it is you've accomplished so far. We have agreed on these issues here, these items here. Mutual interests have been satisfied in these areas. Can we write up a partial agreement or solution? What would that look like?

What will it look like if we don't have any solution, partial or otherwise? So you could ask them to explore those possibilities with you. So, if it's the entire conflict, that's one thing. But if it is only one or two interests, there is always the possibility of the partial solution.

Now, there are some people who do believe there really is no such thing as an impasse. There is no such thing as an impasse and that it is just a period of being stuck, that conflict resolution process is an iterative process, and that perhaps you need to just go back and revisit steps. You need to keep going, that this is really an opportunity to dig deeper.

And that may be true. But there may be times when perhaps you have to come to a stop. The timing's not quite right. You may discover that one party feels that the conflict is still serving their needs in some particular way. Perhaps they're getting some public relations from this. It's public awareness of a particular issue that's important to them, and they want to keep it in the public eye a bit longer.

There could be any number of reasons why perhaps there is really a reason for at least postponing a solution, at least on one particular aspect of the conflict. So an impasse could be real. Perhaps it's not real. But it's up to you as the intervenor to check in with the parties, to take your cues from them, and to move forward depending on what you hear from them in the private meeting or in discussion during the process.

It's up to you to move towards a partial solution if that's possible. And if it's not possible to take a break and reconvene at a different date should the parties want to move in that direction. So thank you for meeting with me for this tutorial, and I look forward to next time.

  • Impasse

    A situation in which the interests of both parties cannot be met jointly.