Upstairs neighbours who refuse to fix pipes leaking water into your home. Decorators who demand more pay for shoddy work. It's enough to bring people to blows - or slug it out in the courts. Civil engineer Paco Tsang Ping-chiu can help resolve such matters before it comes to that - he's a volunteer mediator and president of the Hong Kong Mediation Centre. Accredited seven years ago, Tsang hadn't been called on much to exercise his mediation skills. That was until this year, when the government issued guidelines requiring the courts to advise litigants in civil cases to consider mediation where appropriate. Now, when the 52-year-old leaves his Tsuen Wan site office after work, he often makes his way to building management offices to help settle disputes between residents. At the Hong Kong Mediation Council, chairman Chan Bing-woon reports a similar shift. 'In the past decade, there were more mediators than jobs for them. But things changed this year; since the government's directive came into operation we've had a surge of mediation cases.' The solicitor says he is now almost fully focused on mediation, although he still finds time for legal work and public service. Mediation hasn't caught on as widely in Hong Kong as it has in the West, although it was introduced to the city about 20 years ago. But its role has come to the fore since the judiciary began promoting arbitration last year to ease pressure on the courts and discourage unnecessary legal battles. Property developer Peter Cheng Kar-shing trained in mediation two years ago just to learn a new skill. But despite his busy schedule, the 57-year-old still takes on arbitration cases after work because helping others gives him pleasure. 'It's all about time management,' he says. 'The parties don't know who I am.' The deputy managing director of New World Development, who usually weighs in on commercial disputes such as those over land ownership, also values the glimpses he gets into facets of Hong Kong society he seldom sees. Cheng was particularly struck by the family cases he dealt with as part of his accreditation test. 'I can't imagine how these families get by without any savings. In one case, the wife was a mainland migrant who had to care for her mother-in-law.' So how do the city's more experienced mediators get squabbling parties to come to a compromise? Impartiality is vital, as is thorough preparation - sifting through piles of documents and conducting in-depth interviews to get to the crux of the dispute. Norris Yang, a solicitor who has specialised in mediation for more than a decade, meets the two sides separately first to get a better grasp of their grievances before encouraging them to consider alternative solutions. 'I look at their education level, their jobs and whether they have been abroad. These all affect their thinking. I need to understand them to understand their reasoning,' Yang says. 'People tend to trust me and are willing to open up to me.' Tsang, however, prefers to hold a joint session with the feuding parties before interviewing them individually, and eventually sitting everyone down together to draft a settlement. Whatever his personal views, he takes great care to maintain a neutral stance. 'We can't give any sign - whether through our eyes or body language - that makes either party feel that we disagree with them. We can't even face one side more than the other. Once they think that we are biased, they will stop the mediation,' Tsang says. Rephrasing harsh comments made during a meeting into neutral language also helps. But Tsang finds that the best way to change stubborn minds is to tell people about potential liabilities in a matter-of-fact way; for instance, pointing out news reports about similar disputes and how culpability was ultimately determined. 'Gradually, their stands soften, and then it is easier for them to accept a settlement,' he says. Mediators not only have their own techniques but also their own style. 'I think the two words [technique and style] are used by experienced mediators interchangeably,' Chan says. 'Together, they produce great results. I always like to use simple, down-to-earth examples to illustrate my point or question, so that people can understand right away.' Often, it's the human touch that helps break a deadlock. Chan's most memorable intervention was in a drawn-out dispute over compensation paid by owners of Albert House in Aberdeen, where a canopy collapsed and killed a passer-by in 1994. Damages of HK$25 million were awarded against the incorporated owners, some of whom refused to pay, and litigation dragged on for 10 years. The mediators' attempts to bring the parties to the table floundered until a gesture of sympathy - sending fruit and flowers to an owner who was ill - led to a change of heart. Perhaps what distinguishes successful mediators are their people skills and empathy. Sylvia Siu Wing-yee, a well-known family mediator, handles about 10 cases each month, ranging from divorce, disputes over assets, custody and access, to maintenance. Her clients include very rich couples and poor families (whom she often helps for free), yet their demands can be remarkably similar. Locked in bitter, self-defeating quarrels, unhappy couples would say 'I want him/her to die' or 'I want all his money', says Siu, 56. Many won't even look at each other when they first sit down for mediation. But relating her new take on life after recovering from a rare tumour often helps them put matters into perspective. 'I tell them that I was lucky to survive. Then they look at me and the ice starts to break. People feel that I care for them and they trust me.' Many people seeking divorce are just desperate for others to listen and understand them. And often, all that is needed for an amicable settlement is a sincere apology, says Siu, who sometimes identifies so closely with her clients that she ends up crying with them. Also a solicitor, Siu finds greater fulfilment from her work as a mediator than from any court victory. For most mediators, the goal isn't simply to get two sides to reach a settlement. Yang's biggest triumphs are from mending fractured ties, like when, for instance, he helped clear up misunderstandings between two business partners, enabling them to remain close allies; or when siblings in a drawn-out scrap over their parents' estate were able to come together again for a celebratory dinner after reaching a settlement. 'Hostile behaviour can be replaced by a friendly atmosphere, and it often ends in handshakes, hugs and a rebirth of the relationship,' he says. That's why Cheng is keen to take on more family cases. 'I want to do more family mediation. It is so meaningful, but very difficult work.'