10 Reasons Mediations Fail and How to Avoid Them

Disagreements and disputes are not strange and rare occasions in the world of business, and many choose mediation as it promises a quicker, more cost-effective, less adversarial, and, more importantly, confidential solution compared to traditional litigation processes. However, contrary to the popular belief that mediation is a silver bullet, several hidden traps can lead to its failure. Here’s a deep dive into the common reasons mediations fail and how to circumvent them.

Common Reasons Mediations Fail

Lack of Preparation

Imagine negotiating without knowing your bottom line or understanding the other party’s interests. That’s akin to setting sail without a map. Such an endeavour is fraught with uncertainty and significantly diminishes the likelihood of reaching a favourable or even viable resolution. This lack of preparation can  be a primary reason mediations fail, leading to missed opportunities for settlement, prolonged disputes, and increased tensions that could have otherwise been mitigated or entirely avoided.

In this context, preparation transcends the mere accumulation of data and financial figures. It involves a holistic grasp of the broader business landscape within which the dispute exists, including the historical context of the relationship between the disputing parties, the intricacies of the industry standards, and the potential impact of various outcomes on the immediate and distant future of the businesses involved.

This foundational understanding facilitates the identification of all stakeholders’ explicit and implicit interests and objectives, thereby enabling a more strategic approach to negotiation.

Fix: Invest time and resources in pre-mediation briefs and ensure consensus among all stakeholders on the objectives and desired outcomes.

Choosing the Wrong Mediator

Choosing the right mediator is crucial, akin to picking the best captain to navigate your ship through a storm. If you end up with someone who doesn’t get the ins and outs of your specific business area, or worse, someone who can’t stay unbiased, you’re setting sail with the wrong captain at the helm. The journey could end up being longer more tumultuous, or you might not get to your destination at all. It’s not just about their general mediation skills; their expertise in your field and their ability to remain impartial can be crucial factors in why mediations fail.

Fix: Choose a mediator who has a solid track record in mediation and understands your industry well. They don’t need to be an expert. Still, they should be able to speak your language, grasp the technicalities of your dispute, and have a history of successfully navigating similar waters.

Poor Communication

Reasons Mediations Fail

When communication in mediation breaks down, it resembles a group of tourists trying to find their way in a foreign city without speaking the local language. Despite their best intentions, every mispronounced word and misunderstood direction only adds to the confusion, leading them further from their desired destination. This scenario highlights how vital clear communication is; without it, every party involved feels frustrated and lost. Participants in mediation can find themselves in a maze of confusion, where each misunderstanding layers upon the next, creating conflicts that were never there to begin with and making the path to resolution increasingly challenging to navigate.

Fix: Practice active listening. It demands more than just hearing words; it requires engaging with and reflecting on what is being said, ensuring the message is received and understood.

Unrealistic Expectations

Approaching mediation with the mindset that you will come out as the clear winner, with all your demands met, is like hoping to stumble upon a mythical creature during your morning stroll. While pleasant to imagine, it’s a fanciful thought that is far removed from the practical realities of dispute resolution. Mediation, at its core, is about finding a middle ground, a place where both parties can stand together, albeit not in the exact spot they might have initially envisioned. It’s a process rooted in give-and-take, requiring each side to bend and flex their expectations to reach a mutually acceptable resolution.

Fix: Start with goals that are within reach. These goals should be grounded in the realities of the situation, informed by an understanding of both your own and the other party’s needs and limitations. As the mediation progresses, being willing to recalibrate these objectives based on new information and the unfolding dynamics of the negotiation is critical. This doesn’t mean losing sight of what you hope to achieve; instead, you should recognize that the path to resolution is not a straight line but a winding road that requires adjustments along the way.

Hidden Agendas

Concealed motives during mediation are akin to submerged icebergs lying in wait for the unsuspecting Titanic; just when the journey seems to be going smoothly, they emerge to threaten the entire venture. These hidden agendas, whether they involve undisclosed financial strains, secret business strategies, or personal biases, can instantly derail the mediation process, turning what could have been a route to resolution into a disaster and, worst, eroded trust. The danger lies in their presence and capacity to remain undetected until they cause significant damage, making the waters of negotiation treacherously challenging.

Fix: Foster an environment where openness is encouraged and expected, where parties can illuminate the depths, revealing any hidden agendas lurking below the surface. This involves cultivating a space where candid discussions are the norm and trust can be built and maintained throughout the process. Use caucuses (meeting with individual parties privately) effectively to build trust and uncover motivations while safeguarding the privacy and confidentiality of both parties.

Power Imbalances

When one party in a mediation holds significantly more power than the other, it’s akin to entering a contest of strength where the odds are unfairly tipped in one party’s favour. This imbalance, whether in terms of financial resources, legal expertise, or simply the influence one party may wield, can distort the mediation process, turning it into a lopsided affair where the weaker side struggles to have their voice heard and their interests adequately represented. Just like the biblical tale of David and Goliath, the underdog finds themselves at a disadvantage, but in this scenario, they’re missing the sling that would level the playing field.

Fix: Select a mediator with a proven track record in managing power dynamics, complex disputes, and high-conflict situations. Such a mediator is adept at recognizing and adjusting for imbalances, employing strategies that amplify the voice of the less powerful party and ensuring that the process remains equitable.

Lack of Commitment

Entering mediation without full engagement and commitment from all parties involved is similar to embarking on a sea voyage with the crew only sporadically attending to their duties. Just as a ship cannot reach its destination if the sailors are not consistently handling the sails, steering the wheel, and navigating a mediation process, it cannot achieve its goals if the participants are not fully invested in the proceedings. This lack of commitment, manifesting either through the physical absence of crucial decision-makers or a generally disengaged attitude, acts as an anchor, dragging down the potential for progress and resolution. Without the necessary drive and participation from everyone involved, the mediation process risks becoming a futile exercise, drifting aimlessly instead of steering towards a constructive outcome.

Fix: Ensure that every party acknowledges the importance of the mediation and commits to actively participating in the process. This means more than just showing up; it involves being prepared to engage, negotiate, and make decisions. One effective strategy to ensure this level of commitment is to insist that all key decision-makers are either present during the mediation sessions or can be quickly contacted to provide the necessary authority to make decisions binding.

Skipping Pre-mediation Sessions

Bypassing pre-mediation sessions can be likened to an orchestra attempting to perform a symphony without prior rehearsals. Just as rehearsals are pivotal for ensuring each musician understands their part, and how it fits within the greater harmony, pre-mediation sessions are crucial for laying the groundwork for the mediation process. These initial meetings provide a valuable opportunity for all parties to articulate their perspectives, voice their concerns, and outline their objectives in a structured environment. This preparatory phase is instrumental in establishing a shared understanding and setting a constructive agenda, which serves as the blueprint for the mediation proceedings.

Fix: Advocate strongly for the inclusion of pre-mediation sessions. Making these sessions a non-negotiable part of the mediation process ensures that every participant comes to the table with a clear understanding of the issues at hand and a readiness to engage in meaningful dialogue.

External Pressures

Navigating a mediation process under the watchful eyes of external entities, be it the media, the public, or other businesses, can feel like conducting delicate negotiations on a stage. This fishbowl effect, where every move and decision is potentially subject to scrutiny and judgment, can add an undue layer of pressure, influencing the dynamics of the mediation in ways that are not always conducive to honest and open dialogue. External pressures can distort the parties’ priorities, pushing them toward decisions that favour public perception over genuine resolution or even causing them to hold back crucial information for fear of it becoming public knowledge.

Fix: The implementation of confidentiality agreements is paramount. These agreements serve as a bulwark, ensuring that the discussions within the mediation remain protected from the prying eyes of external observers.

Additionally, keeping the focus of the mediation discussions strictly on the relevant issues helps maintain a clear path towards resolution, undistracted by the noise outside the mediation room.

In essence, these strategies are about constructing a protective bubble around the mediation process, allowing it to progress based on the merits of the case and the genuine interests of the parties involved rather than the whims and pressures of the outside world.

Legal and Procedural Misunderstandings

Diving into mediation without a clear grasp of its legal and procedural intricacies is like deciding to play a board game without a thorough understanding of the rules — it’s a setup for confusion and frustration. This lack of experience can easily lead to missteps and misinterpretations that, at best, slow down the mediation process and, at worst, completely derail it. The complexities of legal frameworks and mediation procedures are not always intuitive, and navigating them without a proper guide can result in parties making uninformed decisions, agreeing to terms that are not in their best interests, or even disputing the process itself due to misconceptions.

Fix: Addressing these potential pitfalls requires the presence of a knowledgeable navigator. This can take the form of legal counsel who brings clarity to the legal ramifications of decisions made within the mediation context or a mediator who possesses neutrality and facilitation skills and a deep understanding of the procedural and legal landscape.

A mediator skilled in elucidating legal and procedural aspects can demystify complex concepts, guide discussions in a productive manner, and pre-emptively address any misunderstandings before they have the chance to impact the mediation negatively.


Mediation offers a practical solution for dispute resolution that is less adversarial and often more effective than traditional litigation. Its strength lies in its ability to bring disputing parties to a negotiation table, where dialogue, rather than contention, paves the way to resolution. Yet, like any journey worth undertaking, it is strewn with obstacles that can test the resolve of even the most determined travellers. These challenges, ranging from miscommunications and power imbalances to hidden agendas and external pressures, are akin to the unpredictable weather and rough terrains that explorers must navigate.

The key to traversing these challenges is the meticulous preparation of one’s vessel and crew before setting sail. Understanding the landscape, equipping oneself with the necessary tools, and fostering the right attitude involves recognizing the potential pitfalls and actively planning strategies to mitigate them. It demands an openness to change, a commitment to transparent communication, and an unwavering focus on reaching a mutually beneficial resolution.

As you embark on the mediation journey, armed with the knowledge of these potential roadblocks and equipped with the tools to overcome them, you transform the process from a perilous voyage into a navigable journey toward a shared destination. This approach of preparedness, adaptability, and collaboration ensures that the resolutions achieved are not merely temporary fixes but lasting agreements that stand the test of time. Mediation, therefore, becomes not just a method of resolving disputes but a powerful tool to convert challenges into opportunities for growth and success.

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