Bridges Across Impasse: When All Else Fails
By Nicholas R.M. Martin, MA
as published in the
Autism Asperger's Digest,Sept-Oct 2010


No doubt most if not all parents and educators hope to reach consensus when they attend special education planning meetings. But when disagreements arise and emotions run strong, they often find themselves at impasse. If so, what can they do? It's not enough to say, “Well, as a team you need to go back and learn the tools that will prevent you from getting here.” Instead, they need practical strategies they can implement now. A few simple skills can make all the difference, so let’s explore some proven ways to help build bridges before accepting defeat.

A good place to start is with an understanding of what impasse really means. Webster defines impasse as “a situation offering no escape, as a difficulty without a solution, an argument where no agreement is possible.” At first blush, this seems very pessimistic. If there truly is no escape, why not just fold up and go home? If agreement really is impossible, why not save everyone from further time and trouble and end the meeting right now? The reason of course, is that our children’s education hangs in the balance and quitting is simply not an option. The good news is that there is a huge difference between the appearance of impasse and true impasse. A team can often seem stuck and really feel stuck when the potential for success still remains very high. This has led professionals to distinguish between two kinds of impasse: momentary and fatal.

In momentary impasse, the possibility of agreement remains open; the team just needs further discussion or a different approach. In contrast, fatal impasse is a situation in which agreement really will not be possible, perhaps not at all or at least not on that particular day under those particular circumstances. However, when it comes to impasse, it is usually impossible to know which form it is until all possible avenues are pursued. In other words, every impasse must be considered momentary until proven otherwise. As the old saying goes, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

As mentioned earlier, teams may often see themselves as stuck “when the potential for success still remains very high.” How (on what basis) can one say such a thing? Well, counselors, mediators, and facilitators will all attest to the fact that people so often see themselves as stuck only to find unexpected routes forward with additional discussion, a different approach, or outside assistance. Even more compelling is the fact that statistics are beginning to emerge with great consistency that show that contentious IEP teams will come into agreement, predictably, from 73-95% of the time when given the support of a neutral third party to assist them to collaborate. These are the figures reported by state facilitation programs to the Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE) and can be found at here. Such figures become particularly impressive when one considers that facilitation is rarely requested when IEP teams are working together effectively. Instead, these are the “hard” cases where impasse is especially likely.

What can teams learn from this? Well, the first thing to consider is the power of positive expectations. A universal principal known as the “self-fulfilling prophecy” states that what we expect we tend to create or promote, and then when our expectation is met, it strengthens the foredrawn conclusion. Thus, teams that expect hardship and failure are more likely to experience it, and the members are then likely to walk away with an even stronger expectation of failure the next time: “You just can’t get anywhere with those people…He/she is just so unreasonable…They are so closed-minded…Trying to talk to them is a waste of time.” These and similar negative projections are not simply what we’ve learned from past experience; instead, they are the building blocks of a powerful and predictable process: The expectation of failure promotes failure, just as the expectation of success tends to promote success. And this is not simply a study in philosophy. Statistics are starting to show that success really is possible most of the time!

So, what can teams do when they’re stuck? The first step is to believe in possibility. Do not give up hope. Those who believe they will find a way through their difficulties are much more likely to do so than those who pessimistically “hold fast” to faith in failure and impossibility. The second step is to remember that the vast majority of IEP teams will find success if they have support in the process of collaboration. So, if a team is struggling, for whatever reasons, one option might be to adjourn for today and meet again in the near future with a facilitator present to support the team’s collaborative process. Now, it must be said that facilitation is not yet available in all states and school districts, but it is the wave of the future and it is in place in at least 18 states. But whether it is or isn’t available, the more the team members can do to support their collaborative process, the more likely they will be to find their way through their impasse and encounter success. They don’t necessarily need a facilitator, but they do most certainly need to collaborate effectively.

“But it’s too late for that,” you might say. Well, then “phooey,” I would say. Never! The team in difficulty, whether trained or not, need only create or restore a climate of collaboration and the doors of possibility will reopen – often in surprising ways.


Skills for Effective Collaboration

What might this look like in practice? Let’s imagine it’s the third IEP meeting in a month and the previous two ended in impasse. The parents now sit on one side of the table with six educators stacked on the other. Mom fumbles with her Kleenex; the tap, tap, tap of dad's pen on the desk echoes through the room. You could almost hear the whistle of the falling bomb when the principal says, “I know how you feel, and I’m sorry you feel that way, but under district policy, there’s just nothing we can do.” Kabooom! Impasse.

It’s curious that impasse and impossible both begin with imps. But let’s not be faint of heart nor quick to believe in impossible. Instead, let’s brainstorm some of the many possible avenues from this point forward. We can avoid the ones that actually support impasse, such as, “I’ll see you in court, you’re nothing but a bunch of hypocrites, the only thing you care about is the money,” and a host of other hostile and non-collaborative responses that will only seal the deal of impasse. Instead, anyone around the table could say something like this:

“I feel really hopeless right now. I want you to at least consider the option that I am proposing.” This could be called talking from the heart, clearly identifying as briefly as possible what the person feels (in one word) and wants (right here and now).

“You must have good reasons for feeling as you do. Could you help the team understand your thoughts?” This could be called affirming and asking for help – in this case in understanding.

“What do you see happening if we were to go that route?” or “What would be the harm if for any reason we did not?” This can be called exploring the underlying interests, the reasons behind whatever positions a person has taken – in other words, the anticipated future benefits the person envisions if the team were to implement or not implement whatever option is being considered. [See companion article, “Collaboration and the Exploration of Interests: The Golden Keys to Building Consensus.”]

“What if we were to try this for, say, a week (or a month) and see how it goes, and then meet again to review it and perhaps make another plan then?” This is called playing with the time shape and involves a time-limited proposal with a doorway out if for any reason the plan is not working. Experience shows that people are much more willing to agree to something temporary rather than permanent, and suggesting a trial period can often provide a pathway to agreement.

“We seem to be having a hard time right now. Anyone have any ideas that might help us move forward?” This could be called reflecting and inviting to the group, as if holding up a mirror for the members to recognize their difficulty and invite them to brainstorm any possibilities for getting through their obstacles.

“Team, would it be helpful to take a minute to just review what we have agreed upon and what remains undecided?” This could be called retracing the day’s progress and can be very helpful in restoring the trust, hope, and positive outlook that is so helpful for keeping the team moving forward. Bringing into perspective how much has been accomplished can often make it easier to then collaborate effectively on the issues that remain.

But what if these strategies are not enough? What if the team members have tried all of these ideas and still cannot get across what divides them? There are still other options to consider!

Sometimes agreements are not made because one or more members don’t trust that the others will follow through. If this is the case, one solution is to build in guarantees and contingencies. For example, perhaps I refuse to agree to my child remaining in his current placement because I believe that teasing by peers in the hallways is going to continue. One solution might be to design an action plan if that were to happen. (“If that, then this…”). For example, if my child continues to be teased by peers, then the district will: move him to a different campus; pair him with a peer; assign a staff person to accompany him between classes; discipline the child responsible and inform that child’s parents in writing...or whatever mutually agreed back-up plan would satisfy the concerns of the team members.

When impasse seems unavoidable, yet another option that can be very helpful is to take the time to discuss the pros and cons of leaving without agreement. Whenever people are working together to solve problems of common concern, they will always have a list of shared benefits and shared risks related to reaching agreement versus not. Benefits include: services to the child, a sense of completion, saving time, more positive team spirit, and so on. Shared risks include lost time if an additional meeting becomes necessary, negative feelings for the future, delays in serving the child, and lost time and expense if legal activity or third-party intervention becomes necessary. Any member could propose some frank discussion around the question, “Does anyone see any benefits of reaching agreement today, or any possible costs if for any reason we don’t?” The answers the members give may be enough to motivate renewed commitment to collaboration and problem solving.

When all else fails, several options still remain. Any team member could propose another meeting with a facilitator present. Another option might be for a few members of the team to meet with a mediator of their mutual selection. Yet another is to narrow the issues in dispute by drafting a written summary of the points agreed upon and clarifying the points left undecided. In so doing, the team can avoid “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” by placing all issues back into dispute when many have actually been settled. This process can save a great deal of time, expense, and bitterness.

Finally, the team can make agreements about the disagreements. Given the issues left unresolved, how do the members now wish to proceed? Take a break and return with fresh minds and ideas? Arrange additional testing or seek the advice of experts? Review district policies or get legal advice? By making agreements about their disagreements, they keep the ball in the collaborative court, in which case impasse has not yet occurred!

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