By Steven G. MehtaSteve Mehta

For many years now, my good friends Gig Kyriacou and Myer Sankary and I have presented a seminar at various conventions regarding mediation techniques identified through the movies.  One movie that never ceases to entertain the audience and provide meaningful tips for negotiators is the movie “Wedding Crashers.”

Wedding Crashers stars Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson who are mediators that like crashing weddings for fun and to attract women.  The beginning scene is comedic look at mediation. The scene provides interesting food for thought for negotiators as well as mediators.  The following is the beginning scene from the movie “Wedding Crashers.”

There are several lessons from Wedding Crashers.

Maintain A Positive Attitude

The mediators maintained a positive attitude throughout the entire process. Even though everything was crashing down upon them, they refused to fall victim to the negativity.  Each party to the mediation is negative towards the other person, dismissive, hostile, and volatile. Instead of getting into that feeling on either side, the mediators continued to maintain an upbeat attitude and tone to steer the parties through their difficult times.

Often, negotiations can live or die based upon the attitude of the parties. The emotions of one person in a mediation or negotiation can change or affect the emotions of the other people. As such, it is important that as a negotiator or mediator, you must be the rock that is the foundation for the peacemaking process.

Even in the face of comments regarding the lack of progress, the mediators’ response was to identify the areas in which they had made progress even if those areas were small. The mediators were effective in focusing the parties on the positive aspects as opposed to the negative aspects.   As you recall, John’s response was to say,“you want to hear the crazy thing.  I know it doesn’t feel like it, but we’re making progress!”

Refocus the negative to another topic

One technique that was used in the mediation was to change the subject when things got too hot to handle.  For example, one of the mediators changed the subject of the negative message to a positive message by asking the question “You didn’t always hate each other.”  This question in the mediation allows one of  the parties to talk about the wedding day and the food at the wedding such as crab cakes. In addition, it allowed the parties to think about something that they had in common – the wedding.  This change in topic allowed the mediators to work on refocusing the negative emotions into either neutral or positive emotions.

This technique is a very powerful technique especially in emotional cases. Often, parties will continue to cycle on the negative emotion until some external force helps them to break the vicious cycle. Recently, I mediated a case where a person was consistently focused on the death of her sibling. After she had cycled on this emotion for a long time, I change the topic completely by talking about lunch and different food items. This minor change in topic allowed her an opportunity to refocus away from the death of her sister for a brief moment. This temporary hold in the emotions also allowed her mind to adjust to the new information that had been previously given to her about the merits of her case.

After lunch arrived, I asked her to continue with her discussion and she indicated that she had said all she needed to have said. We then focused on working on resolution of the problem before us as opposed to the underlying death of her sister.

Create a Common Enemy

Research has shown that people who are enemies or opponents in something will join together if there can unite against a common enemy.  There are many quotes about a common enemy.  My favorite quote from my favorite story, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,  is the following: “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.”  The same is true in conflicts such as negotiations or mediations.

Here, the mediators found a common enemy:  The institution of marriage.  If you don’t have a specific entity to make as a common enemy find something else.  In litigation, the fact that the jury can be fickle and biased may be the enemy.  This technique can be very helpful in giving the parties something to work towards.

These are only a few of the points discovered from this scene.  There are other negotiating points in this scene.  Which points do you see?

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