The Sources of Conflict graphic – external realities, relationship issues, communication and information issues,
organization constraints, value differences, and leadership
issues – invites elaboration and discussion of most key issues.
Putting them in a circle suggests several messages: they are
all relevant, they are intertwined, and they can each be identified and considered separately before putting the pieces back
together. As is often said, the good thing about a vicious circle
is that there are so many ways to break into it.
TRIANGLE OF INTERESTS
We may pretend that helping parties follow interest-based
negotiation principles leads to a wholly rational approach to
resolving conflicts, but it doesn’t. Yes, we need to help them
move from unproductive “hard bargaining” over entrenched
positions to creative problem solving where underlying interests are articulated, shared, and used to create new solutions
once common ground is discovered. But to get to that desired
outcome, we need to recognize that the concept of “interests”
is neither simple nor wholly rational: there is an emotional
component that, if not identified, can get in the way of overcoming impasse.
People and organizations are complex, with unclear and
often unstated motivations, fears, hopes and concerns. This
insight led to the research and observations in Fisher and Shapiro’s Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate and
Stone, Patton and Heen’s Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, which plumb these deeper levels.
This complexity, however, with its highly charged aspects, can
seem overwhelming to the parties as well as to the mediator,
especially if the mediator is not comfortable dealing with the
heat that generally accompanies such discussions.
One way to simplify the wide range of interests involved
in a mediation or facilitation and surface the emotional elements in a safe and creative way is to think of a Triangle of
Interests, with substantive, procedural and emotional sides,
all equal. Recognizing the emotional dimension and giving it
equal weight can be liberating, because however frequently
it is ignored, minimized, or denied, the emotional level is often
the most important – and most difficult – of all.
TRIANGLE OF INTERESTS
In a mediation, we can work with the parties to elaborate
each dimension of the Triangle, and then work with the par-
ties to understand them. Again, a simple framework can help
identify complex ingredients, as each concept is discussed:
“Substantive interests” are our tangible, measurable con-
cerns, objectives and aspirations. In environmental disputes
they may include preservation of environment, relief of con-
gestion, impact on air quality, cost, etc. In family enterprise
disputes they may include position, compensation, dividends,
“Procedural interests” are our needs related to process.
In both environmental and family enterprise disputes, they
include timeliness, transparency of decision-making, ade-
quacy and sharing of information. They might also include (in
environmental disputes) opportunity to be heard as more than
window-dressing, readable reports, consideration of options,
objective analysis, technical assistance, etc. or (in family enter-
prise disputes) governance, boards of directors, disclosure of
records, structures for discussion, involvement of younger gen-
erations, availability of objective outside analysis, etc.
“Emotional interests” are our needs related to how we
feel about ourselves and others. In both environmental and
family enterprise disputes, emotional interests include trust,
respect, and being taken seriously. They might also include (in
environmental disputes) respect for one’s role in creating the
proposed project at issue, professional stature, worry about
advancement, etc., or (in family enterprise disputes) self-image, feeling cornered or embarrassed, parental treatment
from childhood, etc.
As mediator in a dispute among adult siblings over the use
and future of a treasured vacation home, I found the Triangle
of Interests an essential tool. During a site tour, we came upon
a room where one wall was a bright red, painted recently by
one member of the family, which triggered an argument:
“Why did you paint that wall red?” one sibling said.
“Because I like it,” said another.
“Well, I don’t like it, I always liked the blue, and besides I
should have been consulted.”
“Oh, you can never make up your mind and trying to talk
with you about these things is just too frustrating. I felt
responsible. The paint was peeling, and it needed to be
painted before this summer.”
“So you just ignore me…just as you’ve bullied me since I was
TRIANGLE OF INTERESTS