Page last updated at 08:28 GMT, Thursday, 29 October 2009

Doing deals between angry parties

By Simon Atkinson
Business reporter, BBC News

Shouting man
Sometimes it is quite okay to "rant and rave"

The latest round of postal strikes are underway after negotiations between Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union failed to reach agreement despite three days of talks being attended by the TUC's Brendan Barber, who helped the sides reach agreement in 2007.

Mediation between workers, firms or individuals is pretty common, but what does this involve?

The BBC spoke to a number of mediators to get an idea of some of the key tactics employed to try to get a successful outcome. And it seems the answer ranges from rooms and raised voices to late-night pizza.


With a tough day of talks ahead, nobody wants to get into a slanging match before things have even begun.

Mediators will typically stagger the arrival times of the different parties so they do not have an uncomfortable encounter in the car park or foyer.

"You have to remember these processes are taking place in a fairly tense atmosphere," says Clive Lewis, managing director of national mediation firm Globis.

"Often parties have not been speaking. They may not have met face-to-face for months or even years. Meeting up so early in the day, when they're not expecting it, would get things off to a difficult start."


This is no time for hard wooden chairs and freezing rooms.

Hotels or modern offices often host mediation, with each side having its own conference room as a base.

There have been cases of people standing and staring at each other from opposite sides of the room in a bit of a stand-off
Clive Lewis

The mediator will move between the rooms in so-called "shuttle diplomacy", finding out what ground each side may concede and understanding what the key issues are.

Typically there is also a central meeting room for round-the-table discussions, when the sides come head-to-head.

"You need this to ensure the parties are moving towards a decision," says Mark Jackson-Stops, founder of In Place of Strife mediator services.

"And the mediator has to decide when the sides have got as far as they are going to get for now, then send them back to their own meeting rooms."

Tea, coffee, biscuits, lunch, afternoon snacks and "time for a fag break" should not be overlooked.

"People want to feel like they are being looked after," says Mr Lewis, who is also author of The Definitive Guide to Workplace Mediation.


With two sides at loggerheads, there is plenty of potential for table-banging, voice-raising and a bit of swearing to boot.

Mediation is used when opposing parties want to find a solution yet cannot reach a settlement
The opposing factions agree on a mediator in advance. Individuals build their reputations - just as in any other industry - and so those most highly regarded are asked for specifically
Mediators usually have a background in law or human resources
Industry estimates suggest that up to 90% of cases are resolved during or soon after mediation

Apparently, this is not as common as you might think, but when it does happen, it is not always seen as a bad thing.

"After a few minutes with the chance to rant and rave, you often find things settle down," says Mr Lewis.

"If things do get hairy, the mediator will either decide to separate the sides or take the riskier option and let it run," he adds, saying that it can be "cathartic" for people to get off their chests the problems of the past before focusing on the future.

However, "letting off steam" cannot be allowed to go to far.

"I encourage people to be courteous to one another," says Mr Jackson-Stops. "People can demonstrate their passion and anger so long as there is no physical or verbal abuse. That would be unacceptable."

Mr Lewis says he is yet to see one of his mediations result in fisticuffs.

"But there have been cases of people standing and staring at each other from opposite sides of the room in a bit of a stand-off."


Negotiations can be tiring. Often those attending are nervous and will not have slept much the night before.

But do not expect things to be resolved inside office hours.

Mediation is useless unless it ends with a settlement agreement being drafted, and this takes time.

You have to be able to go to each side and frankly tell them if what they are expecting is not realistic

"You can aim for a 5pm finish, but sometimes things are only just getting going at that point and you have to stick with it, even if that means finishing in the early hours of the morning," says Mr Jackson-Stops.

Mr Lewis agrees, calling for resilience and persistence.

"Where possible, it's critical to wrap everything in one session. If you have to come back, it can get worse. Use the momentum that would have built up to crack all issues."

"You need persistence and to keep going no matter what."


Sometimes, a side's demands are just not going to be met.

One mediator, with experience of recent high-profile negotiations, says it is important mediators are not too weak on this issue.

"You have to be able to go to each side and frankly tell them if what they are expecting is not realistic," he says.

A mediator's dealings with each side are confidential and they cannot reveal to one party what their opponents have indicated they will accept.

"But they can assist in making proposals in a form that will not alienate a party, and possibly take the sting out a difficult decision," says Mr Jackson-Stops.

Establishing what each party is willing to give up is also important, says Mr Lewis.

"You need persistence and to keep going no matter what."


Often a dispute has several issues, some not entirely related to the main bone of contention. Pay, working hours and plans for modernisation might all play a part (does that sound familiar?).

But being happy to agree on one point and ignore side-issues can be dangerous, Mr Lewis says.

"The risk is that those concerns will continue to fester and come back at a later stage, when it's potentially much more difficult to settle."

"In that intervening period, you get pockets of conflict developing where people are beginning to talk about the issue."

As well as making the dispute harder to resolve, all that discussion back at the workplace can hit productivity too.


Getting the pizza in: momentum or hunger?

Seasoned journalists who have spent hours camped outside industrial disputes waiting for developments are always on the lookout for food.

If the pizza delivery man arrives, or somebody returns to the building with an armful of fish and chips, it usually means that everybody is in for a long night.

Mediators agree it may have more significance than those inside just being a bit peckish.

"It means there is momentum," says Mr Jackson-Stops.

Food, however, should not be used as a bargaining tool, says one experienced mediator.

"I'm not one for bringing in boxes of pizzas and cartons of cigarettes as the night drags on," he says. "It's not a hostage situation."

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