When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail

When conflict resolution meets the “Law of the Hammer”

Ah, the trusty hammer. Its sturdy handle and heavy head inspire confidence, promising a solution through sheer force. But what happens when every problem looks like a nail in need of hammering? This familiar saying, “When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail,” perfectly captures the potential pitfall of relying on a single approach to conflict resolution. In the world of mediation, this translates to overdependence on certain techniques or strategies, even when they’re not the best fit for the situation.

Let’s explore some common “hammers” in mediation and the unintended consequences of overusing them:

  1. The “Quick fix hammer”:

Driven by the desire for a speedy resolution, mediators might rely heavily on direct proposals or one-sided concessions. While this approach may be effective in simple situations, it runs the risk of disregarding underlying power dynamics and suppressing deeper underlying issues. In more intricate conflicts, a rushed solution can leave parties feeling unheard and discontent, potentially weakening the long-term viability of the resolution.

  1. The “Talk it out hammer”:

Facilitating open communication is a cornerstone of mediation, but overemphasis on lengthy discussions can backfire. Endless talking without concrete action steps can lead to frustration and fatigue, especially for parties with different communication styles or conflicting emotions. Striking a balance between dialogue and decisive action is crucial for keeping the process focused and productive.

  1. The “Problem-solving hammer”:

While mediators trained in problem-solving may naturally prioritise finding practical solutions to every aspect of the conflict, this approach can sometimes hinder progress. When the focus is solely on solutions, the underlying emotional wounds and needs that drive the dispute may go unaddressed. In order to truly show empathy and achieve effective resolution, it is important to first understand the “why” before tackling the “how.”

  1. The “Everything can be solved through mediation hammer”:

Sometimes, mediators may overstep their boundaries unintentionally, which can wreak havoc on an otherwise promising conflict resolution process. These self-regarding mediators may have an inflated sense of their abilities and believe they can handle any dispute, regardless of complexity or parties involved. They may exude confidence, but their overconfidence can be detrimental. When a mediator believes they can mediate anything, they may take on cases that are beyond their expertise or experience. Unfortunately, this often leads to unsatisfactory outcomes for the parties involved, as the mediator may lack the necessary skills or knowledge to effectively resolve the dispute.

Furthermore, mediators who are egocentric may have a stronger tendency to impose their personal perspectives and beliefs onto the parties, rather than promoting an open discussion and allowing the parties to reach their own resolutions. This can create a sense of distrust between the parties and the mediator, potentially causing the mediation to fail. As such, it is crucial for mediators to acknowledge their own limitations and know when to refer cases to other professionals. By doing so, they can ensure that the parties achieve the most favourable outcome and that the mediation process is a success.

The drawbacks of the “Hammer” approach:

Relying solely on the hammer of traditional, forceful mediation methods can come with unintended consequences:

  • Ignoring underlying issues: The hammer’s blunt force might quickly forge an agreement, but it often fails to address the deeper emotional needs, power imbalances, and historical context that fuel conflict. Picture two neighbors hammering out a property-line dispute without exploring the underlying resentment brewing from years of perceived slights. The fragile agreement may crumble under the weight of unaddressed emotions.
  • Escalating tensions: Forcing solutions through pressure tactics or domineering communication can exacerbate existing tensions, pushing parties further apart instead of forging bridges of understanding. Imagine a mediator hammering through legal jargon and technicalities, leaving confused and frustrated clients feeling unheard and disempowered.
  • Limited solutions: The hammer’s places too much emphasis on preconceived solutions, disregarding the possibilities for innovative and personalised approaches that take into account the specific circumstances and dynamics of each conflict. A typical scenario is where a victim-survivor is forced to attend a “mediation” in a domestic abusive relationship and being re-victimized in the process by trading harmony for justice.
  • Eroding trust and agency: A heavy-handed approach can leave clients feeling manipulated and dictated to, undermining their trust in the process and their own ability to navigate future conflicts constructively. Imagine a business mediation where the mediator dictates terms, leaving both parties feeling like pawns in a power play.


Here are some tips for mediators to keep their toolbox diverse and prevent the “law of the hammer” from taking over:

      • Self-awareness and reflection: Take time to self-reflect and become aware of your personal biases and preferred methods. It’s important to regularly review and assess them. Be receptive to input and feedback from colleagues and mentors to discover any tendencies towards relying too heavily on certain approaches.
      • Expanding your skillset: Continuously seek training and learning opportunities to add new tools to your mediation toolbox. Exploring diverse conflict resolution models and techniques can equip you to handle a wider range of situations.
      • Focusing on flexibility: Approach each conflict with an open mind and adapt your strategies based on the specific needs and dynamics of the case. Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution in mediation and over-confidence and ego does not fit into the mediation model of resolution.
      • Prioritising holistic understanding: Pay attention to not just the words spoken, but also the emotions, body language, and underlying power dynamics present in the conflict. This deeper understanding will guide you in choosing the most appropriate tools for each situation.


The “When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail” approach is a common pitfall for mediators who are too focused on their own ego. This approach refers to the tendency to use the same approach or technique for every situation, regardless of whether it is appropriate or not. When mediators use this approach, they may be more likely to overlook important details or to miss opportunities to find creative solutions to complex problems. By being flexible and adaptable, mediators can avoid this pitfall and provide their clients with the best possible outcome.


Written by Eugene Opperman (B.Proc. LLB.) (LSSA L.E.A.D., ADR Network, FAMAC) , a legal practitioner and accredited mediator. 28 January 2024.