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Idioms and Risky Moves in Mediation

April 18, 2017

Always fond of English language use, I sometimes turn to a reference book that has been on my library shelf for many, many years.

The book is called The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, edited by William Morris and Mary Morris (1977, London: Harper & Row, Publishers).

It was given to me by a college friend long ago.

I still refer to it from time to time because I think about idioms in my work as mediator.

Two of my favorite idioms came to mind in a [fictionalized] mediation when one side tried a negotiation move that backfired in the mediation session.

Let me just quote from the book for you.

Penny wise and pound foolish, dating back at least to the time of Shakespeare, describes a person so concerned with minutiae that he loses track of truly important considerations….

Hoist by his own petard means “destroyed by his own trickery or inventiveness.” A petard, in medieval warfare, was an explosive charge which daring warriors would affix to the walls or gates of a castle under siege. This action in itself was a most hazardous one, but the greatest danger came after the petard was in place. The explosive was detonated by a slow match or slowly burning fuse. Occasionally, of course, the explosive went off prematurely, in which case the warrior was hoist (lifted or heaved) by his own petard. It is unlikely that this archaic phrase would have persisted in our language, even in a figurative sense, had not Shakespeare conferred immortality upon it with this line from Hamlet: “‘Tis the sport to have the engineer hoist with his own petard.” Today it is chiefly used to describe a person ruined by plans or devices with which he had plotted to ensnare others.

So, why did these idioms come to mind?

Well, I’ll tell you.

At the last minute, after hours of back and forth negotiation, a disputant decided that he wanted just a little bit more from the other side than was offered, instead of saying yes to the offer that was well within his so-called zone of possible agreement. (See my related post at

Forewarned that this might be a risky move after such a grueling day of tiring negotiation, the disputant nevertheless insisted that the counteroffer be communicated in the other room, which was done. However, the counteroffer was angrily refused by the side that was clearly worn out by the lengthy negotiaion, the briefcases were slammed shut, and the other side impatiently left the mediation in a huff. (On when and how to say yes or no in a negotiation, See Wheeler, M. A. (2013) The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World. New York: Simon & Schuster.)

It might have been that it was penny wise and pound foolish for the responding party not to stretch a little to meet this higher demand and make the deal then and there even though late in the day and beyond the party’s expectations … or, at least, to check his emotions, take a deep breath, and say “no” in a more constructive way to allow the mediator additional time to help close the deal.

On the other hand, it might have been that the demanding party would have been hoisted on its own petard because the mediation session ended without any agreement at all.

The good news is that the deal was saved later in the week via telephonic intervention by the mediator (see the related post at ).

The other good news is that my reference book is still available in my library so I may consider what idioms might apply in another forthcoming mediation!


David I. Karp is a full time independent mediator of real estate and business disputes in Southern California. His website is at . Please email him at if you have a favorite idiom you want to share.


From → Mediation

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