It’s a common mediation experience. You are sitting with two disputants, keeping a conversation alive by avoiding inflammatory words and topics, when one or both of the parties come down from their initial positions to reach an agreement. Though they are common enough, these moments are referred to as “mediation magic.” The mediator does not know exactly what he or she did, but it worked.
This occurrence may be explained by an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology described here. Researchers conducted a series of studies on the effects of priming either action or inaction on whether subjects changed their minds on an issue.
The outcome of these studies are that people are more likely to change their minds when primed to inaction (e.g., wait, slow, calm) and more likely to maintain their current opinions when primed to action (e.g., go, energy, motivation). The researchers surmised that being prepared to act brings existing opinions to the forefront of the mind, while being prepared to wait allows people to better scrutinize their ideas.
This lesson is also reflected in wisdom on creative problem-solving. This is why the first rule of brainstorming is to suspend judgment (action)–when participants move toward action, they hinder their ability to think in new and different ways.
How can these lessons be used by mediators? First, they indicate that you should not motivate participants to act. Asking the parties, “What are the two of you going to do about this?” will draw out their existing positions. Meanwhile, encouraging the parties to be calm, wait, listen, and take a break if necessary, will give them the breathing room to reconsider their thinking. Though action is necessary for the mediation to be productive, disputants are often already motivated to not be sitting across the table from an adversary, and resolution is one option for satiating the natural tendency toward conflict-avoidance.
Thus, a winning mediation strategy involves keeping the participants present in the conflict while encouraging them to be patient and wait.