Newsletter, September 2006
Contents this month
Resolving disputes: 10 strategies
1. Listen to how the dispute has arisen
In particular, listen for the different dimensions of the dispute:
- People having different or competing material needs and interests,
or different priorities
- Communications problems, often the result of differences between
how people expect others to behave towards them and how they feel
- Underlying differences of beliefs and values, expressed through
political or religious beliefs, or abstract or symbolic preferences
- Perceived threats to people's internal and personal sense of meaning,
purpose and self-respect.
2. Understand the positions, interests, values, needs and fears
of each person or organisation
It is critical to know what is driving and motivating everyone.
- Positions: what people are saying publicly
- and how it may be perceived or interpreted by others
- Interests: what people want - and what may
- Values: what is important to people in terms
of political or religious beliefs or other abstract concepts
- Needs: what people really must have - and what
is therefore not negotiable
- Fears: what people are trying to avoid - whether
it is in the past, present, or future.
3. Explore some history
Every dispute arises in the shadow of the past - personal, institutional,
cultural. Sometimes it is impossible to make progress until past
problems have been worked through. But do not get trapped in the
past - use it as a springboard to how people would like the future
to be different.
4. Check for internal disputes
Neither people nor organisations are monolithic: often disputes
can arise as an outward projection of internal differences. Sometimes
you have to deal with internal conflicts before you can tackle external
5. Ask about uncertainties
Uncertainty is a potent source of dispute because uncertainty breeds
fear, fear breeds hostility, and hostility creates conflict and
Uncertainty may be caused by:
- lack of information
- lack of clarity about others' goals or policies or priorities
- the fact that the surrounding situation or context may change.
Uncertainty creates a vacuum that is filled by rumour, speculation,
assumptions and prejudice - which can all cause further conflict.
6. Build on common interests, values, needs and fears
There is always some common ground if you look hard enough - such
as shared uncertainty about the future.
Explore and build on the common ground so that gradually the area
of common ground increases and becomes more important. Get people
to be creative and think up ideas and options they have not previously
When the search for common ground has achieved some momentum - and
people begin to see the possibility of resolving the dispute - it
becomes easier to address areas of difference.
7. Communicate mindfully
Slow down the process of communication. Every time there is a bad
reaction to something that is said, stop the conversation and check
how it has been understood and why it has caused a problem. Make
communications problems a way to help people understand each other
8. Acknowledge power differences
Power differences inhibit communication, negotiation and agreement.
Whether the power is physical, financial, institutional, intellectual
or personal, an imbalance can encourage the more powerful to bully
and the less powerful to use cunning and passive aggression - such
as deliberately withholding information - to redress the balance.
Often differences of power are a fact of life. If everyone acknowledges
this, and discusses how to prevent them being a problem, then the
problems that could arise may be prevented.
9. Invest enough time
Negotiation, resolving disputes and building agreement are complex
processes and they require an investment of time - don't rush them.
Give people time to adjust to new thoughts about others, practise
new attitudes and behaviours towards them, experiment with possible
10. If you are really stuck, use a third party
A third party, whether a professional mediator or just someone
trusted by all sides, can help resolve disputes by:
- helping people to prepare for a difficult meeting
- when people do meet, ensuring that issues are explored in
- broadening the scope of discussion and ensuring that both
sides think creatively about the options open to them and
- enabling negotiation to continue beyond the point that,
without such assistance, it would normally become deadlocked or