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Newsletter, September 2006

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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 treated
  • Underlying differences of beliefs and values, expressed through political or religious beliefs, or abstract or symbolic preferences or priorities
  • 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. Discover:

  • Positions: what people are saying publicly - and how it may be perceived or interpreted by others
  • Interests: what people want - and what may be negotiable
  • 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 ones.

5. Ask about uncertainties

Uncertainty is a potent source of dispute because uncertainty breeds fear, fear breeds hostility, and hostility creates conflict and more uncertainty.

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 considered.

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 better.

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 solutions.

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 depth
  • 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 break down.


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