Handling a Power Imbalance

Werner Petterson

Former CRS Mediator, Chicago Office

[Full Interview]

Question: When you perceived that there might be a significant power imbalance between the parties in this case, how did you intervene?

Answer: ...In cases where there are power imbalances, the person(s) in power tries to use the mediation to their advantage and it usually becomes very clear. The other side responds or is hostile and they feel like they are being pushed to the point by somebody who has a little more power. Usually, I try to talk with the person who has the power, to look at where their position is taking them. I say, "if you hold that position and exert your power and not show any flexibility then this thing is going to continue to get worse and we aren't going to find a solution." Sometimes it was a possibility that if we couldn't work something out then there was going to be lawsuit or some sort of boycott or a threat of violence. The person that is in the position of power reflects on where that's going to go. That's been my general response. I talk to the party with the power to point out this will continue to go in the direction they want to go and the downside of that and what are the possibilities of going some other direction. Not to say they ought to accept what the other side is saying, but at least get them off of just being partners in that situation. The other side of the equation is that people have different kinds of power, but for the side that has the least power sometimes being in that situation they make demands that are unrealistic... I ask if we can think of it another way, or if we can talk about some of these other issues. I think when there is a real power imbalance the mediator needs to bring some reality to the situation for both sides. They may not be seeing the best solutions.