Mediator Hostility is Effective?!


By: Donald L. Swanson

What follows is confusing and disorienting . . . and a little disturbing.

A 2017 academic article has this title:

The Surprising Effectiveness of Hostile Mediators” [Fn. 1].

And it reaches this conclusion:

“As in prior studies, negotiators were more willing to reach agreement after interacting with a hostile mediator than a nice one.”

And the authors aren’t talking about marginally-hostile behavior. They mean real hostility:

Going beyond tough stances on issues or pressing for agreement;
Displaying meanness or general unkindness “targeted at individuals”; and
Doing the opposite of being “nice.”

Actual examples of hostile behavior in their research include the following mediator statements:

“Given that my schedule is busier than yours, I’ll choose the time—noon tomorrow”;

“Now that the two of you have sufficiently wasted my time, I’m relieved I don’t have to hear more about your problems again”;

“Hi, I’m your mediator for today. I can’t decide what happens in this dumb dispute or how you resolve issues. My job is just to help people who are incapable of reaching conflict, like yourselves, find areas that you can agree on. That means I get to control what appears in the messages, which is a good thing since it seems like the two of you are incapable of making any smart decisions. I just want to say that this better be good. I DON’T like to waste my time.”

“Ok, let’s see what kind of annoying complaints are on the table today. . . . Wow, it seems like the two of you made some pretty bad decisions. . . . I can’t believe that this issue is taking so long to go over—the two of you are just wasting my time.”

An Important Distinction

The authors emphasize that hostile behavior works only when the mediator is equally hostile to all mediating parties—not when the hostility is directed at only one party.

Singling out one party for greater levels of hostility can backfire, leading to all the negative consequences commonly associated with rejection and social exclusion.

A Common Enemy

But being hostile to everyone has a positive effect in mediation, the article says, because:

A hostile mediator gives the mediating parties a “common enemy,” which reduces the social distance between them and increases motivations and abilities to cooperate;

Hostility “shifts the focus away from interpersonal conflict between the negotiators”; and

Hostility creates a favorable point of comparison: i.e., “My counterpart doesn’t seem so bad compared to this mediator,” versus “Why can’t my counterpart be as kind as this mediator.”

Here are some specific points from the authors’ experiments:

Participants sent more private messages to each other when they were in the presence of a hostile mediator than a nice one;

While hostility from a negotiating party will worsen tensions and increase stalemate likelihood, hostility from the mediator has the opposite effect; and

The mere experience of being the joint target of hostility increases perceptions of a common enemy, reduces the social distance between opposing parties, and increases the negotiators’ motivations and abilities to cooperate.

A Parenting Illustration

The authors turn to this parenting example to illustrate their point:

Parents of quarreling siblings often find themselves shouting a curiously hostile phrase when their efforts at peacemaking fail: “I don’t care who started it—both of you go to your rooms”; and

An effect that results from such a shout is that siblings in conflict may find themselves “playing nicely together after being banished.”

A Practical Problem for Mediators

Let’s assume, for a moment, that the findings of positive-effects from hostility are accurate and are applicable to many mediation circumstances.

What, then, should a mediator do?

There is the problem of building a reputation in a field where being “nice” and “understanding” is a desired quality. What’s the effect of hostile behavior during mediation on that reputation?


This is a tough one to process.

Footnote 1: The article is by, (i) Ting Zhang, Postdoctoral Research Scholar and Adjunct Assistant at Columbia Business School, (ii) Francesca Gino, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and (iii) Michael I. Norton, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.  The article is published at 63(6) Management Science, pages 1972-1992 (June 2017), with funding from the Harvard Program on Negotiation..

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5 thoughts on “Mediator Hostility is Effective?!

Add yours

  1. This is goodstuff if practiced by a skilled mediator in the art of hostility…this is not for the timid. you must be prepared if the parties turn their hostility on you-the Mediator.

    Liked by 1 person

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