Conflict between people isn’t just inevitable, it’s pervasive. People have distinct, incongruent motivations and expectations, so conflict is the default state of any relationship. And that’s okay. Getting along isn’t about eliminating conflict. It’s about managing conflict so that everyone involved is satisfied. But sometimes when someone’s not satisfied, things get out of control, emotions take over, and a conflict ripens into a dispute. Disputes hurt. They distract and discourage, and dampen the same-team feelings that facilitate cooperation. So how do you deal with disputes?
The law is [ostensibly] designed to regulate conflict and resolve disputes. But in business, the law never offers an optimal outcome because the transaction cost is so high, both in time and expense. What’s worse, legal remedies are inadequate to fully redress the emotional component of a dispute, which, when you think about, it where all the caring about the outcome actually happens. Plenty of litigants in legal disputes remain bitter long after a case is settled, even if they’ve won. If that’s true, is the dispute actually resolved?
People are not primarily rational. They’re emotional. Emotions don’t yield to systemic remedies. Emotions are subjective and personal, and the emotional layer of a dispute can only be resolved with particularity. The law will never be able to do this. But you can. At least you can try.
First, try to understand the root of the negative emotions surrounding the dispute. Is there some core concern that isn’t being addressed in the person who’s aggrieved? By core concern, I mean those perceptions we get from others that validate our identity. They include appreciation, affiliation, autonomy, status, and role (I’m borrowing this framework of concerns from Beyond Reason, an excellent book on negotiation). People want to feel that others appreciate their value and contribution, they want to feel connected, they want to feel like they have control and discretion, they want to feel respected, and they want to feel like they have purpose. Start with yourself. Can you pinpoint any area where you aren’t being validated from the others involved? You might have to dig a bit. Your core concerns rarely manifest themselves directly. Work your way down from the top: what are you asking for in the dispute? What interests are you trying to protect or advance? How do those interests reinforce your core concerns? Try to answer those same questions about everyone involved. If you can dissect the dispute into everyone’s demands, their interests, and their core concerns, you can start to get a picture of what full resolution looks like.
Once you have a working map of the dispute, look for opportunities to reinforce each person’s core concerns and build on that. If you find the areas where people need validation and satisfy them, you can lower the emotional barriers to reconciliation. If you are one of the aggrieved people, you may have to put your own feelings aside to get things started. If you can’t, find someone to mediate, either someone who’s known and respected by everyone involved, or a professional counselor or mediator (Protip: most lawyers suck at this). It’s messy, but sorting out the emotional layer of a dispute can get you back to a place where you can manage the conflict, play nice, and move on.