Impasse breakers


The greatest threat and therefore the greatest challenge is seeing a long and important stakeholder process end in impasse for the “wrong reasons.” Wrong reasons might include procedural breakdowns, miscommunications, or interpersonal quarrels.

Here are some things that can be done to prevent, manage, or resolve last moment deadlocks. This list was compiled jointly by Peter Adler and Louis Chang and is drawn from the work they did together over the course of numerous projects.

  1. Throughout the previous stages and phases, the facilitator should keep careful notes and track the strengths and weaknesses of each stakeholder’s situation: the potential net losses and net gains; the costs of protracted conflict (economic, political, social, personal); the costs of delays and lost opportunities; the future uncertainty of political or legal outcomes; the impact of bad publicity and future reputation. Use these as talking points in private meetings to help explore possible alternative positions.
  2. Help each stakeholder understand his or her best and worst alternatives to a negotiated agreement (BATNA and WATNA). Do this in private.
  3. Look for creative packaging by exploring linkages for trades that are high value for one and low for another; that are contingent (“If they would give B, would you consider giving A?”); that can be bundled as a set of gives and takes; or that can restructure future relations (“We will set up a joint monitoring committee”).
  4. Invoke external standards. What specific regulations, statutes, codes, bluebooks or guidelines exist and are applicable?
  5. By agreement of all, use a third party expert to pronounce on or “arbitrate” a single sticking point.
  6. Establish “Agreements in Principle” (and then move to specifics).
  7. Conversely, find a single issue and use that to build towards a larger package of “contingent” agreements.
  8. Chart out all options visually. Use a criteria/options matrix to help rank and rate. Or use a final straw poll (distributed or weighted). Or use paired comparisons to evaluate each option against every other.
  9. Change the process. Move from joint meetings to private meetings, or visa versa. Move to shuttle diplomacy. Hold a technical sidebar or separate working group on the hold-out issues. Go back and do classic brainstorming on the remaining stubborn issue.
  10. “Cage the Gorilla” by enlisting the support of the group’s constituents to exercise control of an intransigent and high-intensity participant.
  11. Hold a secret poll to see where the weight of the group’s thinking lies.
  12. Bring in a “Gray Eminence,” a respected fourth party to help with the final negotiations.
  13. Call a “Time Out” and assign homework: “Please prepare a statement of all variations and the (+) and (-) characteristics of each option.”
  14. Provide confidential “coaching” to each side.
  15. Take everyone to dinner. Keep it social. Don’t talk business but ask everyone to do some thinking overnight after dinner.

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