Impasse in Conflict Resolution Originates from Within

Collaborative practice and other conflict resolution models offer many effective strategies and techniques for dealing with impasse: that point in a negotiation where clients “hit the wall” and are unable, even with the expertise of their professional team, to reach an agreement they both can live with. In my experience, Impasse in any negotiation is an outward expression of an unresolved and unconscious internal impasse or historical conflict that exists within an individual.

The Rapid Advance Process and its five simple steps is designed to help an individual break through this internal Impasse and thereby, become fully empowered to show up in a cooperative way to resolve a dispute in a manner both clients can live with going forward.

Here are the five simple steps:

  1. Reveal the History
  2. Recognize the Impasse
  3. Release the Past
  4. Respond to Fear
  5. Reconnect to Higher Thinking

Recognizing Your Impasse, Step Two in the process, requires some courage and introspection. The client who is moving through the five steps has already completed Step one or Revealed the History. He or she has taken a look at how they developed and how they absorbed some of the more challenging experiences inherent in everyone’s childhood. Once they have completed Step One, they are ready to identify the Impasse.

Most of all, a client will have to be “still” in her/his mind in order to recognize it. Humans begin to distract themselves from their Impasse at a very early age with assorted habits because the Impasse can be far too overwhelming to face from the limited developmental experience of a young child.

Here’s an example illustrating an outward expression of an internal Impasse. Let’s call our client Mary. Mary “hit the wall” in the creation of her divorce parenting plan when it came to the section for medical decision-making. She wanted to have the last word in making medical decisions regarding the children. Her soon-to-be-ex was not comfortable with that. She refused to consider any of the alternatives: joint decision-making; turning the decision over to the child’s competent and longstanding pediatrician, or perhaps a combination of the first two options. Mary was immovable and refused to brainstorm all the possibilities on how medical decision-making for the children might be addressed.

Mary was referred to a professional who was trained in the Rapid Advance Process. She was guided through Step One and revealed her history. Mary was the second-born in a family of two children. Her older sister was chronically ill and her parents argued frequently about how they should address her health needs. Mary was about four years old when their fighting about her sister became quite noticeable. She would hear them fighting almost every evening over treatment options while she lay in bed, trying to fall asleep. She felt afraid during those times. She thought during those scary episodes that if she were less than a perfect child, her parents would start fighting; then perhaps leave each other and then leave her. An abandoned child would die. This was all very terrifying to little Mary!

While this was the erroneous thinking of a very young little girl, this thinking process set the stage for Mary’s internal impasse: “I must be perfect and in total control of my health or I will be abandoned.” When Mary was small these thoughts were overwhelming, so she began to distract herself from them. She started to behave in a perfect, controlled manner. She would arrange her room in a certain way and no one could touch anything in it. She would redo projects or her homework many times until they were perfect. As she grew older she became an overachiever in high school and college and she rarely gave herself the gift of any down time.

As Mary matured, so did her distractions from her “Impasse”. She grew up to be a workaholic and she had lots of challenges in delegating simple tasks to others. She suffered with migraine headaches, anxiety and insomnia.  She worried a lot about getting things done. When she wasn’t worrying about that, she worried about getting sick and spent much of her free time visiting doctors. Her distractions from her Impasse were making her sick and tired. She turned to the Five Simple Steps of the Rapid Advance Process and when she Recognized her Impasse, she began to have her legitimate sadness about some tough emotional times in her childhood.

Here are the three dimensions of  Mary’s internal Impasse: 1) the memory of her parents repetitively arguing over her chronically ill sister; 2) her feelings of fear and sadness when they argued; and,  3) her erroneous judgment that she would not be very lovable should she become a source of conflict to her parents. Certain present-day situations could trigger this unconscious internal Impasse and the dialogue about medical decision-making was one of those triggers.

A good cry or two was about all it took for Mary to acknowledge her personal historical experience and then begin to correct her resulting earlier error in judgment. She realized that she was always lovable and acceptable just as she was. Her parents arguing was about the nature of their marital relationship and had nothing to do with the value of their children. They argued because they were stressed out at the time. Ironically, they were stressed out because they loved their children so much.

Once Mary Recognized her Impasse, she achieved an inner awareness that felt extremely liberating to her. She attended a program for team building and she started to think about restructuring her work calendar. Mary began to pay attention to how she defined herself by having to be in control and perfect.  She felt inspired to shift to a more satisfying self-definition. She was able to become a better listener in creating her parenting plan and realized that medical decision-making did not have to be an argumentative, adversarial process.

Once Mary gained some insight into her own internal Impasse, she was able let go and reconsider medical decision-making with regards to her children. She remembered that their Dad was a capable parent who truly had their best interests in mind.  Ultimately, Mary and the father of their children agreed upon joint medical decision making with deferring to their pediatrician in the event they could not agree upon one particular form of treatment.

If you find yourself struggling with Impasse in an Alternative Dispute Resolution process, please consider referring your client for the Rapid Advance Process or stay tuned for the up and coming “Just Stop!” series of user-friendly books (HCI Press) which include the Rapid Advance Process in workbook form.

3 thoughts on “Impasse in Conflict Resolution Originates from Within

  1. So, “get over yourselves” doesn’t cut it!? Seriously, as a former parenting coordinator and family and juvenile attorney and still a longtime mediator, I know that many folks benefit from caring, frank comments from the conflict resolution expert…emphasis on caring. I also always give specific examples of possible languaging and/or behaviors to try (or stop) particularly in the rougher cases. I.e. if one can learn attitudes and behavior(s) that aren’t as helpful as is preferred, one can usually unlearn it, learn more helpful things, practice and, one hopes, move – forward or sideways, whatever’s indicated.

  2. Moving through Impasse is one of the most difficult things in any dispute resolution process. As professionals, we don’t always work with people who have done their internal work and can recognize when they are triggered. Using a coach or other professional trained in the Rapid Advance Process can help clients break through to the other side by recognizing where they are stuck and choose a different path. In Collaborative Divorce, each partner has the benefit of a trained Divorce Coach to assist them in their communication, which ultimately saves time and conserves their financial and emotional resources.

    In the Just Stop! series of books coming out soon, the general population will have the opportunity to work the Rapid Advance Process by themselves in the privacy and comfort of their own safe space. The first three books focus on getting rid of bad habits (Just Stop Doing That!), picking healthier relationships (Just Stop Picking Losers!) and eating challenges (Just Stop Eating That!). Future books will continue with the Rapid Advance Process for divorce, anxiety, bullying, addictions, depression, affairs and other pertinent topics for today’s society.

  3. Ellie: Loved your article. I definitely will watch for and try to sense the resistance to resolution due to particualr issues stuck in impasse in my mediations to see (without playing therapist) if I can get the resistant client to reveal what he/she is feeling that prevents us from resolving that issue (and refer out to therapists when I sense the need as I usually do).


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