Unexpected Outcomes: A True Story of a Mediation

By: David Matz

In Small Claims Court a customer is suing a dry cleaner. She had brought in her dress and the cleaner had destroyed it. She wanted $300, her purchase price; he was willing to pay $25, the amount posted above his counter as the “limit of liability.” The Court suggested mediation and they accepted. My student was the mediator; I was sitting in as supervisor.

The mediator, after the usual opening, explored the meaning to each of the dress or its loss, and their ongoing business relationship or its loss. They discussed alternatives. Each party made concessions, but reached impasse. With the cleaner willing to pay no more than $100 and the customer demanding no less than $200, they were stuck. (Definition of stuck parties: parties with a mediator who does not know what to do next.) Then, the cleaner brightened: “I have an idea. My wife shops at Loehmann’s. [Loehmann’s sold brand name clothes at major discounts.] “I have gone with her and have seen exactly this dress for much less than you are asking. I will get it for you there.” The customer accepted and the mediator was ecstatic.

I, on the other hand, was miserable. I too have been to Loehmann’s, and I knew that the chance of getting her dress, in her color, in her size, in her lifetime was near zero. I believed the cleaner to be sincere, but I foresaw failure followed by the customer’s fury at having been, in her view, duped. While I was mulling the complexities of my role, the mediator was writing up the deal. Meanwhile the parties chatted amicably and the cleaner mentioned that he had once seen a dress like the one in question in his Unclaimed Clothes Box. “What do you find in there?” asked the customer. “Everything,” he replied. “Shirts, suits, skirts, pants…” “What do you do with the stuff that is not claimed?” she asked. “I give it to Goodwill.” And in two sentences they agreed that, instead of the cleaner going to Loehmann’s, the customer could have anything she wanted from the Unclaimed Clothes Box for two months.

No one could have predicted the outcome, but the solution had the only characteristic that mattered—it satisfied both parties and settled the dispute. The moral of this story is: one needs to have faith that there are enough interests to be found or created that both parties can go home satisfied. Though many negotiators cultivate a cynical surface, and some negotiators really may be cynical straight through, the best negotiators I know are fueled by this kind of faith.

(This article can also be found in TMG's Spring 2013 Newsletter, Issue No. 31)