Get at the Heart of the Dispute

Through aggressive and defensive posturing, the parties have collapsed all the factors that have contributed to the unpleasant state of affairs. Any one of these factors, often overlooked by parties and mediator alike, may be able to resolve the dispute.

Though problem-solving often relies on inspired moments, inspiration is usually the result of slow thinking. Look at factors such as:

  • Rights: Entitlements granted by law, custom, and agreement

  • Obligations: Duties required by law, custom, and agreement

  • Remedies: Legal solutions available in adversarial proceedings

  • Issues: Questions or topics that give rise to disputes

  • Positions: Opinions regarding an issue

  • Interests: Needs, desires, fears, preferences, priorities, beliefs, and motivations for the positions that people take

  • Values: Beliefs and principles that govern a person’s behavior and choices

  • Identity: Characteristics that define a person, including groups the person feels she belongs to, such as Christian, Democrat, or baby boomer

  • Power: The need to win or at least feel that the outcome is fair

By carefully unpacking these issues from the tangled mess the dispute has become, you can often help the parties get to the heart of the matter, overcome obstacles that prevent them from moving forward, and begin to recognize possible solutions.

Think of a dispute as a tangled ball of different-colored string. Untangling it may seem overwhelming until you patiently begin working on, say, the green piece. After you manage to extract that thread, you may discover that it represents one of the party’s legal rights or obligations in which neither party has an interest.

Or you may strike it rich on the first try and identify the one interest that both parties are most concerned about.

Parties often get so tangled up in the various factors that contribute to their dispute that they lose sight of what really matters. You can better grasp what’s going on so you’re better able to help the parties extricate themselves from their entanglement and begin to see the problems clearly, to recognize solutions, and to overcome barriers to progress.

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