What on earth has that title to do with mediation you may well ask? A lot is my answer. The quote it’s taken from is itself controversial as its attribution is in doubt. That somehow seems appropriate to me when thinking about the many disputed areas in mediation.
For anyone interested, the full quote is “Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across”. It was, perhaps, said by the Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu, the man who wrote “The Art of War”. He may in fact have said “leave a way to escape” but the golden bridge resonates far more with me.
In fact it little matters who first said it. It’s just, I think, a great phrase to use when mediating. When I’m talking to clients at a first mediation session about the need to hear what will work for the other, I sometimes use the quote. It sums up so succinctly the basic rule of any negotiation, whether in mediation or elsewhere, that a deal is only achievable provided that it works on some level for all involved. More particularly it expresses the need to allow the person who is making a concession which will enable a point to be agreed to feel that he or she is giving way with dignity, not being beaten into submission. After all we mediators are trying to assist our clients to reach settlements which will stand the test of time, not just last as far as the door to our office. I’m more likely to stand by a decision if I feel it was one I made freely and for good reason than one that, on reflection, feels coerced.
A major problem of course for mediation clients is that they may well become so lost in the fogs of war (and who said that?) that they struggle to think clearly, let alone begin to appreciate the need for the more nuanced skills of negotiation. It’s our job as mediators to elicit recognition of the positive and important concessions which either of our clients make. We know what they are as they so often shift the mediation process out of impasse. We need to encourage our clients to thank each other when either makes a significant shift. All of us appreciate a thank you. If we are reversing our position, how much better that feels if it’s over a golden bridge.