Mediation With Difficult Individuals

by Daniel R. Merz, Ph.D*

One of the more difficult personalities to face in mediation is when one of the parties exhibits an egotistical, armored, and intimidating personality. These individuals will often display additional character traits such as bullying, grandiosity, vanity, and a lack of empathy. Initially they can be charming and self-confident yet hidden behind this is a cold and calculating attitude. They may resist your best efforts. If you are not careful about how you manage the mediation process, this person will eventually identify you as an enemy to be defeated.

In a highly stressful mediation that involves a difficult personality, you will likely have a better  chance of success if you can avoid certain approaches or reactions. 

Avoid power struggles. You will be up against someone who has spent most of their lifetime getting their way. They use a win-at-all-costs mentality when they encounter resistance to what they want. Related to this self-centered attitude is the use of mental and emotional intimidation. In the face of this you need to know your weak spots. Because these areas of your personhood will be the first place the difficult person will strike. 

Resist the desire to retaliate or defend yourself. Assertive responses by the mediator to intimidation are often experienced as an assault on the person’s sense of specialness, grandiosity, and entitlement. The person using intimidation is probably experiencing you as a threat. See if you can identify and explore his or her feelings behind the defensive behavior. Give the person room to talk about the feelings behind his or her attack. Then you will be in a better place to reassure the individual that you are not there to judge or threaten him or her. In as much detail as you can, clarify your role as a mediator. Ask the person to describe his or her goals for the mediation.

Avoid having high expectations for the outcome of the mediation. Egocentric individuals maintain a laser focus on winning. Do not expect a fully cooperative and open posture from a selfish individual. Do not expect dramatic changes in their interactional style. Keep in mind some of the items that can be surrendered by the opposite party. Sometimes making concessions can be perceived by the difficult party as a willingness to compromise. At the same time, you will need to keep in mind what positions the opposing party is unwilling to give up.

Avoid being seduced into thinking that the self-centered person will be completely successful with their win-at-all-costs approach. They will attempt to make you believe that you are wrong in your observations. They will do their best to cause you to doubt your process and perceptions. 

Regardless of how successful the mediation eventually becomes for both parties, the difficult person will privately believe that he or she has won therefore as a mediator you have lost. In their private world there is only one spot on top of the mountain of victory and success. That spot is reserved for them and them only. 

If you arrive at a stage of mediation where you have been able to avoid having the egocentric person thinking that they control you, the following strategies may help you achieve a decent outcome.

You will have a better chance of keeping the mediation on a positive track if you can make an early identification of a self-centered individual. From the opening, observe their behavior and the words that they use. Some behaviors to note are a high degree of self-confidence, charismatic behavior, high control needs, and efforts to be the center of attention. Initially, the individual may reveal an attitude of disinterest in what the mediator or the other side have to say or think. 

Affirm behavior by the egocentric person that is helpful to the mediation process. Display a sense of humor at appropriate times. Use active listening to keep the process moving. For example: “You feel strongly about this.” “You seemed to have been caught off guard by my comments.”  

If the self-centered individual’s behavior or comments are inappropriate, make a reference to the guidelines that the parties agreed to before beginning the formal mediation process. Remind the participants that crude comments, vailed threats, or attempts at intimidation violate the agreement that both parties signed.

There are occasions where the story behind the feelings can consume a lot of time. A difficult person can easily dominate sharing. A mediator will need to monitor the story so that it does not become harmful to the mediation process. If the story behind the feelings interferes with input from others, find a gap in sharing the story where you can politely interrupt and summarize what the person has said. Summation is a useful technique in getting conversation back on track.

Expect the difficult person to challenge you. Trust the process you are using and do not apologize for it. Make clear references to the guidelines for the mediation. Avoid setting boundaries or referencing guidelines unless you are prepared to enforce them 

In closing, I offer these thoughts. If at any time you feel you are being disrespected or you are taking abuse that is unwarranted, give yourself permission to terminate the session and recognize that you likely will not be successful with the goals of the mediation.  


*Dr. Merz is a licensed psychotherapist, a marital/family therapist, and a medical educator.

Copyright: Daniel R. Merz, 2020



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