When it comes to settling a conflict through the mediation process, you want to make sure every word you use is meaningful and purposeful. However, for those who are not familiar with the world of mediation, there are some words which can have a catastrophic effect on settlement possibilities. In this blog post we will take an in depth look at six “toxic” words commonly seen during Mediation proceedings so both clients and lawyers alike can avoid any potential mishaps along the way.

The power of words during mediation and why it’s important to watch what you say

Mediation can be a powerful force in resolving conflicts, but it also requires some finesse to get through. One of the most important things to consider when in a mediating situation is the power of words. What you say could serve as the foundation for an agreement, or hold enough weight to derail any progress made thus far. It’s essential to be aware of both the literal and figurative meanings of the words used during mediation because they can have a significant influence on how the case concludes. Thoughtful discourse and respectful communication are paramount to facilitate a successful negotiation.  Basically, make sure your words don’t end up doing more harm than good!

First Word – “Never” – Why this word can cause an impasse in a settlement

The word “never” when used in settlement negotiations is a surefire way to put an immediate stop to discussions. No matter what scenario or context, it is totally unproductive and it communicates a complete unwillingness to compromise. In fact, throwing the word out there during mediation could be viewed as a declaration of war.  By immediately setting an adversarial tone, “never” will do little more than send both parties back to square one.

Yes, sometimes negotiations require a firm stance. But, stepping away from the table with hardline terms like “never” achieves nothing. Let’s try leaving such inflammatory language at the door and work together for a positive outcome. 

Second Word – “Can’t” – Why this simple word can shut down negotiation progress

“Can’t” is a deceptively powerful word! We often think of it as a harmless negation – an easy refusal, or a way to retreat from an uncomfortable situation. In the context of settling a case through mediation, however, “can’t” carries a nasty burden. By simply saying “I can’t”, a party can give an impression they are unwilling to go any further in negotiation.  Such a conclusion could easily be the death knell for any chance of resolution.

In contrast, choose phrases to build toward mutually beneficial negotiations,   Phrases such as “let me investigate that further” or “let me discuss this with my team” communicates a person may not be thrilled with a proposal, but leaves open the possibility of progress. Remember – when it comes to mediation, “can’t” can cost you!

Third Word – “Contingency” – How using conditions hinders success

When mediating, it’s important to keep an open mind and avoid placing conditions on the desired outcome. The word “contingency” is especially discouraged for this reason. Even if two parties theoretically agree during mediation, introducing expectations or contingencies can break any already formed agreement. After all, in an ideal world the goal of a negotiation would be to come to one clear compromise, not several small ones all attached with individual strings! Ensuring there is no hidden agenda or “if-then” policies will guarantee that everyone is on an even playing field and working towards one common goal – settling a case.

Fourth Word – “Fair” – Why “Fair” is the F-word.

When it comes to mediation, “fair” is the F-word because all too often, both parties focus only on what is fair for them instead of looking for solutions. This idea of fairness is subjective and can create roadblocks in reaching agreements that benefit everyone.

Instead of focusing on “fair”, turn to negotiation skills and compromise.  This will take you much further than the debate about who deserves what. Aiming for a good business decision you can live will take you much farther than focusing on what is or is not fair.  After all, when two parties work together to create an outcome that is good for both sides, everybody wins.

Fifth Word – “Fault” – assigning blame is a recipe for disengagement

The fifth word to avoid in attempted case resolution through mediation is “fault”. In the quest for peace and agreement between parties, pointing the finger will earn little progress. All too often, attempts at assigning blame only serve to destroy the chances of each side getting what they want in a peaceful manner. It’s important for successful negotiation to keep blame out of the equation.  It’s a recipe for disengagement that won’t yield good results!

Sixth Word – “Should” – Why the tyranny of the “shoulds” can destroy progress

When it comes to settling a case during mediation, the word “should” is often like an uninvited party crasher – it can derail progress and throw a wrench into negotiations. By putting expectations on the other person or making one side feel their choice is wrong, the guilt of a “should” can create tension and damage any idea of compromise. Committing to the tyranny of shoulds can render both parties unable to move beyond limited thinking and prevents creative solutions. As such, it’s wise counsel to avoid “should” while mediating; unless, of course, you like adding fuel to an already tense situation!

The Six Toxic Words to Destroy Your Negotiation

  • Never
  • Can’t
  • Contingency
  • Fair
  • Fault
  • Should

Stressed party meditating at a stressful negotiation

Need some tips for how to make and receive proposals?

Remember, there is no such thing as impasse in mediation! When you are stuck, it doesn’t mean you storm away from the table and declare a failure. It just means you and your mediation team haven’t found the right proposal yet.

Download our helpful "Summary for Accepting and Receiving Proposals".

Here’s a great little cheat sheet you can use during negotiations to become a pro at negotiating. Follow the tips on this sheet and make specific and plausible proposals based on rational evaluation rather than emotions.


As the ability for parties to reach a settlement often lies in the hands of what is said, the six toxic words explored in this post are ones that should be watched out for if you want to stay on track during a mediation. Although finding the right combination of words is challenging, avoiding these six particular words will help ensure successful negotiations during mediation and a positive outcome.

Know any other toxic words?

These aren’t the only toxic words which can ruin a mediation.  Which ones can you identify?  Share your toxic words and phrases in the comments!