The Harvard Law School Program On Negotiation issued a Special Report entitled “Crisis Communication! How to Avoid Being Held Hostage by Crisis Negotiations”. (See Crisis Communication)

While I am not a “crisis” negotiator per se (although some of my litigation mediations may seem like it at times), this Special Report has some tips that are equally applicable to any dispute or litigation.

The first is to “contain the situation.” While the report speaks in terms of “closing off escape routes and minimizing hostage takers’ contact with third parties” ( 1), I think of it in terms of not allowing the situation that precipitated the dispute or litigation to get worse or out of control. Each party must avoid exacerbating the situation, and to the contrary, work to mitigate her loss/damages and otherwise lessen the tension and emotions.

How? By listening and expanding the “emotional pie” (This is tip no. 2). First and foremost, address the emotions underlying the substantive issues. Find out what is really going on with the other person emotionally or about the relationship before trying to resolve the substantive issues. In litigation, plaintiffs often claim they want money, but after listening to them, one finds that often what they want is an apology, respect, attention, or some other form of acknowledgement. By focusing on the underlying emotions and addressing those first, often the substantive issues tend to resolve themselves. So, simply listen: one learns a lot by simply listening carefully and asking broad questions. ( 2)

The final tip is the most important: “Build a relationship.” Resolving disputes depends on trust. Trust and building a relationship upon which trust can be established is the cornerstone in successfully resolving any dispute in or out of litigation. If the parties do not “trust” the negotiator, mediator or the “process”, they will not work with her to find a solution. And trust can only be created by building a relationship – engaging in small talk and otherwise taking time to get to know the person! It’s all about relationships!

So, the next time you find yourself in a tense situation, think about (1) containing the situation; (2) expanding the “emotional pie” by listening and figuring out what really is going on; and (3) building a relationship and thus trust so that the parties are willing to work together to find a solution.

by Phyllis G. Pollack

Phyllis G. Pollack is a full time neutral in Los Angeles where, as President of PGP Mediation, she focuses on business, real estate, contract and “lemon law” disputes. She may be reached at Phone: 213-630-8810 / / Website: