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Imagery in Mediation: The Rubber Bands.

July 11, 2013

To help participants in mediation grasp difficult concepts, I like to use verbal imagery.

In my opening remarks, I often describe examples of common occurrences to which the participants can relate, and I refer back to these examples later in the process, to keep them on track.

In this way, the participants can look to a particular mental picture, or be reminded of it, to anchor their focus on resolution.

Here is one image I use in my opening statements, not every time,  but sometimes, to explain the difficult concepts of managing the tension of compromise and going beyond expectations.

I compare individuals in mediation to rubber bands.

This is what I say, more or less:

We all have a common experience with rubber bands.  I suggest to the participants that they are like rubber bands, affixed on opposite ends of a table but stretchable toward one another.  I suggest that it is my job as mediator to stretch both rubber bands, concurrently, such that they may meet at a point somewhere in the middle if possible.

If the rubber bands touch, people will have stretched beyond their expectations and we will have a deal that we can document in a settlement agreement.

Each side will have given up a lot and will have received a tremendous benefit: peace and/or the end of litigation.

It is easy at first, as with initial offers and counteroffers, to stretch a little.

Each side is giving in to the other just a bit.

As the tension increases, however, stretching becomes more difficult.

That is, compromise becomes more difficult.

Sometimes people can only go so far in a mediation session and want to adjourn.  The ends of their rubber bands may have come closer to one another, but they do not yet touch.

But we all know what happens when the pressure on rubber bands is released.  They return to their original shapes.

That is, people return to original positions.

Or worse, they are flung farther apart than when they started.

Consequently, I say, it is necessary to keep going, if people can, to keep up the constant pressure and to stretch until the rubber bands touch, that is, until the agreement is reached.

In some cases where I have used this imagery, I refer back to it later in the process, if people are resisting further compromise.

I ask them if it is possible for them to stretch their rubber bands just a little farther and to compromise yet some more to reach agreement.

Sometimes, given the recognition that people may return to original positions or worse if the compromise is delayed, or that the negotiation might otherwise break down (rubber bands can break too), people will agree to continue in the negotiation, that is, to stretch their rubber bands yet a little farther.

Then, if the rubber bands touch, which they really do sometimes, there is a settlement.

It is always surprising to me when I meet up with lawyers years later who recall the rubber bands and compliment me for the memorable image.

I even know one lawyer who mediates and admits that he, too, sometimes uses this same imagery for his mediations.

Why?  Because, as mediators, we use whatever works.

And this does sometimes work!


David I. Karp is a full time mediator of real estate and business disputes in Southern California.  For further information, please see


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