By Katherine Eisold Miller

Sometimes when people in conflict are negotiating to try to find a solution they come to a point when things seem impossible.  Both people are entrenched in their view of the situation and seemingly unwilling to move.

When the situation seems impossible people get scared.  The fear creates an added tension in the room that can permeate the discussion pushing people apart.  Lawyers and other professionals sometimes react by pushing harder toward settlement sometimes using scare tactics to force the settlement before it “breaks apart” and sometimes they give up.

We sometimes call this situation impasse.  I don’t like that word because it adds to the sense that the place of difficulty is hardened like concrete and immovable.  We don’t have a common word that represents a negotiation flowing beautifully where everyone is engaged in finding a solution that works for all parties.  Why then do we honor the place of stuckness with its own word?  Difficult moments happen.  Sometimes things seem impossible.  That is to be expected.  When it does, it is not a cause for panic.

Why might the situation not be as “bad” as it seems?  A number of changes might be made to return people to the flow of negotiation that don’t involve one side capitulating.

Something might be wrong with the structure of the negotiation.  The way the discussions are happening might be a problem.  The wrong people are in the room or someone else is needed.  Attention might be focused in the wrong area.   Participants might not have all the information they need in order to move forward.  Refocusing on how we are working together — what is working and what is not — often helps get the conversation back on track.

Time sometimes intervenes.  Sometimes people need time to process before they can make important decisions.  I have often seen people caught up in hurt  and anger take some time to process those feelings and come to a better place and then be able to come back to the negotiation from a better place inside themselves.  Sometimes time is necessary to resolve issues where the situation is in too much flux to nail down.

Explore motivation to stay in negotiation or to leave.  What do participants hope to achieve?  How painful is the dialogue?  Will leaving the discussions help or hurt and in what way?  Sometimes the negotiation conversation is moving away from what is important to the participants and bogged down by red herrings or more trivial (to the parties) matters.

My friend and colleague Zoketsu Norman Fischer during guided meditations often suggests breathing into a problem or discomfort and seeing what happens.  Breathing into impossibility both figuratively and literally is a possibility that might make all the difference to moving from impasse to synergy.