Cooling-off periods are used in highly emotional confrontations in which one or more of the parties has become intensely angry as the result of some real or imagined provocation or threat. They consist of a formal waiting period, often imposed by law or by an external authority (such as a political leader) before disputing parties are allowed to continue to prosecute a conflict.
Use of this technique grew out of the realization that people who are angry and who may have suffered physical or emotional injuries are likely to make decisions that they will later regret. This can be especially true in violent conflicts when many people have suffered great losses and are often traumatized. Professional intermediaries also recognize the problem. They know that in angry and emotional situations, the chances of reaching a settlement or even making significant progress are almost non-existent. Decisions made under these circumstances are likely to make the situation worse, rather than better.
Bill Ury refers to cooling-off periods as, "going to the balcony." Parties can "go to the balcony" to create enough time and space to distance themselves from their knee-jerk impulses to strike back, give in or break off the negotiation. It gives them the chance to regain control over their emotions.
How Cooling-Off Periods Are Used
In principle, the solution is very simple: agree to a mutual pause in the confrontation (or a recess in the negotiations) so that everyone has a chance to think about what has happened and carefully develop their response strategy. This does not mean that the parties are being asked to forget the events that made them so angry -- they are merely being given time to think carefully about how best to approach the situation.
Anyone involved in a heated conflict can call for a "cooling-off" period (or they can just walk away and take one without asking for permission from the other side). Often, they are imposed before an impending strike, giving management and labor more time to try to work out an agreement before the crippling strike occurs.
Usually what happens is a third party (or the two parties themselves) call for a cooling-off period. During this cooling-off period, the parties are expected to return to business as usual. There can also be an understanding that the terms of the eventual settlement will be applied retroactively to the cooling-off period, so the parties will not lose gains if they wait to pursue the conflict. This approach can be applied in labor conflicts, public policy negotiations, family conflicts, even civil wars. When mediators see discussions as becoming too heated or intense, they may call for a "caucus" with each party separately, which is, in essence, a cooling off period which allows both sides to think about what they and the other side said and did and consider other ways of approaching the problem that might work more effectively. Crisis management techniques designed to slow down the pace of the conflict can also be helpful in fulfilling cooling-off functions.
Cooling-Off Periods in the Israel/Palestine Conflict
Cooling-off periods can be extremely effective, but also extremely difficult to enforce. One high-profile attempt to use cooling-off periods was in the Israel/Palestine conflict. In 2001, former Senator George Mitchell, who played a crucial role in negotiating the Northern Ireland peace agreement, chaired an international fact-finding committee on violence in the Middle East. One of his key suggestions was for a cooling-off period to break the cycle of violence and build trust between the parties. He wrote:
We were told by both Palestinians and Israelis that emotions generated by the many recent deaths and funerals have fueled additional confrontations, and, in effect, maintained the cycle of violence. We cannot urge one side or the other to refrain from demonstrations. But both sides must make clear that violent demonstrations will not be tolerated... In addition, a renewed effort to stop the violence might feature, for a limited time, a "cooling off' period during which public demonstrations at or near friction points will be discouraged in order to break the cycle of violence. To the extent that demonstrations continue, we urge that demonstrators and security personnel to keep their distance from one another to reduce the potential for lethal confrontation.
A cooling-off period was attempted with the help of the U.S. government. According to MidEastWeb,
"US CIA Director George Tenet worked out a detailed plan for ending the violence and resuming negotiations, with the consent of the parties. The plan went into effect June 13, 2001, but resumption of negotiations was conditional on there being a single week free of violence. No such week occurred. By March 2002, Israeli PM Sharon said he would be willing to forego the week of quiet. However, Israeli forces had invaded Palestinian areas by this time, and Palestinians refused to negotiate until Israel withdrew its forces."
This example illustrates both the potential power of cooling-off periods, but also how difficult they can be to use, especially in cases of violent intractable conflict.