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The Mediator’s Role as a Third Sider:
William Ury argues that the third sider strives for a resolution that satisfies the legitimate needs of the parties and at the same time meets the needs of the wider community. In other words, the goal of the third side is “a triple win”. He characterizes the Third Side as representative of both outsiders (for example neighbors, neutrals and bystanders) as well as “insiders” (as in family, friends and the parties themselves). The Third Side, acting as mediator, can literally see both sides from both the inside and out, and to the left and the right.
Ury tells the story of the old legend that: “If one person tells you that you have a tail, you laugh. If a second person tells you, you laugh. But if a third person tells you, you turn around and look!”
Mediators gain their power both from the perspective only one on the “third side” can achieve, and from their goals or objectives. According to Ury, the mediator serves three purposes: representation of the community/peer perspective, serving as a container for conflict, and resolving the conflict.
In the first instance, by representing the community’s perspective, the mediator can help to prevent conflict from escalating. So, for example, by our very entry into the room, and request that the dialogue be directed not at one another, but at a “third side”, the mediator, the tone of the communication can change, sometimes dramatically. Indeed, the voice levels, language employed, and even facial expressions are noticeably different when directed at a “non-party” than when directed across the table between the disputants directly. In an interesting experiment, researchers found that even where the mediator was entirely silent, the tone of the disputants changed dramatically in the presence of a third party.
In the second instance, the environment of a “safe space” to communicate needs and wants and hurts and misunderstandings, serves as an appropriate and indeed necessary “container” for the conflict. By providing that third set of ears and eyes, the mediator has the power to create a safe container for escalating conflict to be laid safely upon the negotiating table. As representatives of the surrouding community, we are called upon to act as a “container” for the conflict which would otherwise be escalating unfettered.
Finally, by acting as the fulcrum for the balance of power and interest, the mediator has the opportunity to resolve the conflict in ways in which the parties, stuck in their own conflict, are often unable to achieve. By being “another side”, we hold the power of perspective: we can view conflict differently because we see it from another vantage point. By physically sitting to the right or the left, or in between the two disputants, for example, we can oftentimes hear or see things differently than the other party who is seated directly across the table.
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Copyright © 2007 Jan Frankel Schau
Copyright © 2007, The Negotiator Magazine