The Cambridge online dictionary defines “mediator” as “…a  person who tries to end a disagreement by helping the two sides to talk about and agree on a solution.” Implied in this is that the mediator will be kind, helpful, friendly, respectful, and any other positive trait necessary to build trust and a relationship with the parties. The adage that “you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar” definitely applies. The mediator will be on her best behavior in helping the parties settle their dispute.

If one suggests that the mediator should approach her task with hostility, the response would be negative.: “That is not the way to help people settle disputes!”

However, a study suggests that, as counter intuitive as it may seem, a mediator who is hostile to the parties, may actually help the parties not only settle but achieve better agreements. Three researchers -Ting Zhang, Francesca Gino and Michael I. Horton- at the Columbia Business School, Columbia University in New York City, and the Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts conducted five (5) experiments to determine if a hostile mediator produces better outcomes than a “nice” or “kind” mediator. They published their findings in Management Science (vol, 63, no. 6, pp. 1972-1982, June 2017) entitled, “The Surprising Effectiveness of Hostile Mediators.”  

For example, from their Experiment 3, here are the introductions of the “hostile” mediator and then of the “nice” mediator:

Hostile mediator: Hi, I’m Jamie. 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.

 Nice mediator: Hi, I’m Jamie. I’m your mediator for today. I can’t decide what happens in this dispute or how you resolve issues. My job is just to help people who are in conflict, like yourselves, find areas that you can agree on. That means I get to determine what appears in the messages. I hope that this meeting is helpful for the both of you. Let’s get started.  

(Id. at 1980.)

Why would one achieve a better outcome with a hostile mediator than with a nice or kind one? The researchers posit several explanations. One is the “common enemy” effect; “…adversaries who moments before were in conflict may find themselves more united against a hostile mediator- and might even end up finding room for agreement.” (Id. at 1972.) Suddenly, the two adversaries face a common enemy aka the hostile mediator and will unite them “…as they bond over their dislike of the mediator, increasing their willingness to resolve conflict.” (Id. at 1974.)

An additional explanation includes that the hostility of the mediator is so unexpected and distracting, that the parties forget how angry they are at each other and instead focus jointly on the mediator. And, to be rid of the mediator, they will make concessions that they otherwise might not make, to reach agreement so that they will not have to face the hostile mediator again. (Id. at 1978-9).  They would rather reach an agreement with their “enemy” than face the hostile mediator again.

A further explanation may have to do with compassion; seeing the other party as the target of hostility from the mediator, may evoke compassion toward the other party.  Such compassion may cause the first party to be more compromising with the other party and reach an agreement with the other party. (Id. at 1988.)

But, for this strategy to work, the mediator must be equally hostile to both sides. If she is hostile to only one side but the not the other, the “common enemy” effect will not occur:

…, these findings demonstrate that mediator hostility increases willingness to reach agreement—by decreasing the amount they are demanding from the other side—primarily because hostility turns mediators into a common enemy that shifts the focus away from interpersonal conflict between the negotiators. Our results also reveal that the feeling of a shared enemy is critical to the hostile mediator effect: only when the hostility was directed at both negotiators did negotiators feel like they shared a common enemy with their counterpart, decreasing the amount in which they demanded compensation from their counterpart. However, when hostility was directed toward just one negotiator but not the other, negotiators were no more willing to compromise (in fact, they were directionally less willing to reach agreement) than those who interacted with a nice mediator. (Id. at 1987).  

While this study presents an interesting approach to mediation, it has caveats. First and foremost, the five experiments were conducted online- either using virtual chat rooms or otherwise on-line. They did not meet face to face either with the mediator or with each other. Some of the experiments lasted a very limited amount of time, 20 minutes or less, and the participants had limited interaction with the mediator. Rather than negotiating with each other to resolve the dispute, the participants were simply asked a series of questions. And, it is based on these answers that the researchers concluded that being a hostile mediator can be advantageous. In sum, the conditions of these experiments did not mirror real life mediations.

As we all know, real life mediations are far different than the conditions in this experiment. They are typically face to face, take far longer than the time allotted to each experiment, and involve multiple rounds of negotiation or caucuses with each side. And to settle the dispute, the parties must negotiate indirectly via the mediator, rather than simply answer a series of questions of what they would do and how they reacted to the mediator.

Thus, while the findings are intriguing, I am not sure how useful they are in an   actual mediation. I do not think it is a tool that I will be pulling out of my toolbox anytime soon.

Just something to think about.




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