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“You Watch Your Phraseology!”

June 26, 2014

Mayor Shinn in The Music Man famously said, “You watch your phraseology!” Good advice.

As I’ve seen many times in the course of mediation, one side makes what it perceives to be a carefully thought out, good faith proposal designed to attract the other side into the negotiation, to move the negotiation forward, and/or even to settle the dispute.

The other side responds immediately and rashly with “That’s ridiculous” or “That’s bad faith” or “That’s insulting” or “No way, I’m going to court” or any number of similar emotional reactions.

If heard (or if read in a direct communication by email from one side to the other), those messages often turn off the other side and stop the negotiation; they disrespect the person making the offer and show no appreciation for the effort that went into crafting the offer in the first place.

Often these responses occur in the heat of the moment or at the height of advocacy; yet they fail to signal or support the kind of collaboration, cooperation or engagement which is usually necessary for people to reach an agreed outcome that works for both sides.

They just make people mad.

Worse, they sometimes escalate the conflict.

What if, instead, the respondent were to say, for instance: “Sorry, no, that doesn’t work for me because….”

Revealing a rational basis or a substantive reason for the rejection of an offer, in a non-antagonistic way (read as factual as opposed to emotional), allows both sides to consider where to go next.

The respondent could add, “Here’s what works for me and why…” and/or “Here’s a counter-proposal that may help us both.”

Sometimes it’s the small things, the words chosen, that can make all the difference.

If a mediator is involved and is permitted to do so, the mediator, acting as a filter, can help deliver the message indirectly and in a more diplomatic way.

The mediator may cause the shift in language by asking the respondent, in private, first, “Is that really the message you want to send?” or suggest, “Let’s rephrase that.”

The goal is to improve the situation, not to aggravate it.

David I. Karp is a full time mediator of real estate and business disputes. His website is at . He apologizes for an ads affixed to this post by They are not his.


From → Mediation

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