First Steps to Resolving Disputes: Setting Realistic Expectations in Mediation

Former First Lady, diplomat and humanitarian Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You can’t move so fast that you try to change [a situation] faster than people can accept it. That doesn’t mean you do nothing, but it means that you do the things that need to be done according to priority.” It’s a statement many find difficult to accept as truth and nowhere is this statement truer than in mediation, where the first priority should always be to set realistic expectations for the outcome of the mediation process.

When parties are in dispute, particularly if the dispute involves family matters or a divorce, emotions run high. When emotions are running high, it’s nearly impossible to turn down the distracting noise they create in a person’s thought process. This is why approaching mediation is difficult for many–with all the thoughts of being “wronged,” “betrayed,” “lied to,” etc., how can you possibly sit down at a table to communicate with the person you believe to be responsible for these actions?

A good mediator understands this and doesn’t approach a mediation session with the insistence that parties hold hands and “play nice.” In many conflicts, this would be impossible to do from the onset. What a good mediator does do, however, is start the mediation session by helping both parties lay out realistic expectations concerning the dispute.

Part of this might be telling them what a judge would likely rule in the matter, if it is taken to litigation and not resolved in mediation. That’s where trial and litigation experience can come in handy for a mediator. Another part of this might be detailing what other people facing the same conflict were able to agree upon in a similar dispute. This helps clients gauge their level of “give and take” realistically in the process.

Mediation can be a highly successful method of alternative dispute resolution if approached in the right way. Much of this has to do with how the mediator sets the tone of the process and how well informed the disputants are concerning a realistic outcome for their case. If your mediator doesn’t help you set realistic expectations at the onset, it’s a sign that he or she is not very skilled in the art of mediation. Insist upon knowing what the likely outcome of litigation would be and insist on your mediator’s expertise in this matter before agreeing to the process.