Using Reality Testing in Mediation

We could all use a reality check once in a while. When we pick up a box of cookies instead of a bag of carrots; when we choose to lounge on the couch in our sweats instead of exercising; when we decide it’s a good idea to grow out our sideburns. Whatever it is, sometimes, we just need someone to step in and say, “Hey, what are you doing?”

Just because mediation is “voluntary” (in most cases), it doesn’t mean the parties want to be there. When one party comes to the table and appears unready or unwilling to compromise, alter their position, or change the ideas and sentiments that may have caused the problem in the first place, it can be incredibly difficult to make progress. This is the time for a reality check, or as it is called in the mediation field, “reality testing.”  This can be one of the biggest benefits of mediation, especially if you are faced with a totally oblivious person on the other side of your issue, although most mediators will tell you this sort of true one-sided blindness is rare.

What is Reality Testing?

It is rare that a mediator would walk into a situation and feel that there is no immediate hope of resolving the situation. But it does happen, and without intervention, the entire process will likely prove to be a waste of time. What does reality testing, look like?

The mediator talks to the resistant party alone, asking them relevant questions about their interests and positions. Quite often, the stated position is different than the underlying interests, and discovering this is useful. Sometimes, parties become so fixated on what they feel is the “right” solution that they lose sight of their real interests – what is really important to them.

Other times, they do not know exactly what they want or what is best for them. Without understanding one’s real interests  one can not be certain what the best outcome would be – other than that they want to “win” and the other party to “lose.” They haven’t looked beyond that, and this is where the mediator can be helpful – moving the parties beyond mere winning and losing.

Another way a mediator can reality test is to focus the person on, “What will be the possible outcomes if mediation fails? What then?” (BATNA and WATNA) If a person realizes that this outcome won’t give them what they want – or think they want – they will be more open to alternatives. Likewise, if they walk through the consequences of failed mediation (such as going to court), they often see the value in reaching an agreement.

All of this is the mediator’s way of saying, “Do you really want the cookies if you are trying to eat better? Is sitting on the couch going to help you get in shape? Are those sideburns really necessary?” It is a reality check when you need it; it is a step back to get a more inclusive perspective that will, hopefully, put the process back on track.  The key is the way it is done. The mediator does not tell a person what to do or that their view of reality is completely off base.  The mediator helps the person discover the disconnect for themselves by helping structure their thought process in a more disciplined manner.

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