As a Group Facilitator and Mediator, I know that my primary job is to help people talk to each other about their wants, needs, positions, feelings, opinions, etc. – in other words, all of the elements of any disagreement, whether major or minor.

If I do this well, parties typically come to some sort of resolution of their conflict.  A group of relatively like-minded individuals may reach agreement on an action plan for their group (e.g., the Board members of a non-profit organization).  Two individuals in a workgroup may sign a Memorandum of Understanding concerning how they will work together in harmony (or, at least, without overt hostility) in the future.  A large group of people with very diverse points of view may agree on a way for a project to move forward (large environmental projects often involve such antagonistic groups).  However, I must always remember that my success is not an agreement reached, but a real conversation completed.  If I fixate on agreement, I may not know when to quit.

Toward the beginning of my career in conflict resolution, I was asked to facilitate/mediate a group of 20 to 25 people who were at odds over a proposed major rock quarry.  There were representatives from the landowner proposing the quarry (his attorney, environmental consultants, etc.), citizens opposing the quarry (nearby landowners concerned with the potential impacts of such an operating quarry), attorneys and consultants for the citizen opponents, representatives of local and national environmental groups, local government regulators (planners, public health personnel, etc.) and anyone else who felt that he or she had an interest in whether or not the project should be approved.  The group was commissioned by local government officials (who would eventually be asked to say yea or nay to the proposal) to discover all of the issues of concern surrounding this proposal, discuss them and then, if possible, find ways to resolve as many of them as possible.  The group succeeded in the first two tasks but was largely incapable of (or unwilling to) accomplish the last.

Given the number of people involved in this “issues group” and the complexity of the proposed project, just discovering all of the issues took several meetings over a period of months.  The members of the group fell largely into two camps, supporters of the proposal and opponents (with the local government officials reserving judgment).  When agreement could not be reached on the potential impacts of each issue area, the group took several more meetings to reach agreement on a list of several experts to analyze the inputs from each side and give professional opinions.  When the experts’ reports were received by the local government officials, they largely supported the project – so the opponents then tried to disavow the entire process of selection of those experts.  So, the one area of agreement (who should give expert input on the issues surrounding the project) fell apart when implemented.

Still, discussions continued for several months, and the parties got no closer to agreement.  So, you may ask, why did the parties continue to talk, and why did I not halt the process?

My analysis is as follows:  No one at the table was interested in finding common ground.  The proponents of the project wanted it to be approved.  The opponents wanted it to be denied.  The local government staff members preferred some consensus by the group, but could not take sides.  However, to some extent, burning up time was in everyone’s interest.  The proponents wanted to give a strong impression that they were responding to the concerns of the public so that the local officials would have cover to approve the project when the time came to vote.  The opponents (as is often the case) calculated that delay was an ally.  If the project were eventually to be approved, a long negotiation process would push quarrying further into the future.  Prolonging negotiations had the added benefit of pushing the eventual decision closer to the next election.  Public officials do not like approving controversial projects just before an election.  The local government staff members did not feel that they could push the negotiations because such a stance would seem to compromise their neutrality.  Being new to the job as a facilitator paid by the County, I did not feel confident that I could shut down the process on my own initiative without penalty of some sort.

So, the discussions dragged on until everyone was simply burned out (and coincidentally, the next election day was getting nearer).  The proponents submitted the application, it went through the formal process, and, shortly before the election, it was denied.  By inaction, I had become an unwitting ally of the opponents of the project.

This brings us full circle.  When the parties had aired all of the issues, discussed them thoroughly, and clearly could not reach any real consensus, the process should have been ended – by me.  Continuing the discussions did not advance the stated goals of the process.  I now know that it the facilitator/mediator’s job to help people communicate constructively.  If they complete that process and cannot reach agreement, there is no shame in congratulating the parties on their participation and calling a halt to further pointless discussion.

As a paid neutral, it my duty to not waste the time and money of those hiring me.  Knowing when to quit is sometimes as valuable and bring the parties to an agreement.